SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
JM BERNSTEIN: Well, thank you for that splendid introduction. It saves me from having to introduce what I am going to do. You may have noticed when [? Dominic ?] listed the painters that I have talked about, I have managed to generate a theory of painterly modernism and avoided talking about any of the major modernist painters.
That was a remarkable work of cowardice on my part. And I have foolishly embarked on the project of filling in that gap. This is the second of three essays.
I have just published an essay on Matisse. This will be a mad attempt to say something about Picasso. And eventually, I'll have to say something about Cezanne.
We were told we could have more than an hour, and I'm going to help myself to more than an hour. It will run about an hour and 10 minutes. However, in another minute or two, the lights will go down. There will be pictures to look at. And it's a nice, you know, 4 o'clock, time for a little nap.
So just relax, enjoy yourself. And as the difficult moments of Adorno come, just blank it out and look at the pictures. If I was very lazy, I would just give you the three epigraphs and stop there.
The title, The Demand for Ugliness, you may have recognized the phrase. It's from Nietzsche. Nietzsche says, "the demand for ugliness, the older Hellene's good, severe will to pessimism, to the tragic myth, to affirm the image of all that is fearsome, wicked, mysterious, annihilating, and fateful in the very foundations of existence, where must the origins of tragedy have lain at that time?"
Epigraph two is from Adorno. "Indeed, it is for the sake of the beautiful that there is no longer beauty, because it is no longer beautiful." And the third epigraph from Michel Foucault-- and these three epigraphs say everything I want to say in the paper. So write them down carefully. That's right.
Foucault says, "I can't help but dream about a criticism that would not try to judge, but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life. It would multiply not judgments, but signs of life."
Part one, shall we turn on the lights, Charlotte? And we'll see how all the technology goes. I've never done this kind of presentation before.
I've always done slides. But the last time I did the slide talk in Australia, the technician, I brought him the slides, and he simply laughed. So I thought it was time to switch to a different technology. I begin.
Modernist painting arrived at its exemplary realization in 1907 with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The Demoiselles finally gave modernist painting an axial turn away from the subject and toward the object. The turn toward the object in Picasso's practice turns on his handling of the human body.
Beginning with the Demoiselles, and then after the interlude called Cubism, returning to it in the 1920s, the body is not so much an object represented, as it is for nearly all previous painting, but a condition for the possibility of pictorial space. Only by thus conceiving the body object could Picasso so radically transform modern art. This somewhat opaque way of articulating Picasso's achievements depends upon the philosophical framework of Adorno's critical theory. Let me quickly sketch the relevant background.
The well-known phrase from the preface to Negative Dialectics, "by critical self-reflection, to give the Copernican revolution an axial turn." Let me repeat that. That's kind of Adorno's model and almost completely opaque.
"By critical self-reflection, to give the Copernican revolution an axial turn" is a useful one for summarizing Adorno's critical project as a whole. The Copernican revolution is, of course, Kant's. This central philosophical idea governing Kant's system is that the basic features that make experience possible-- substance, causality, space, time, et cetera-- which previously had been identified as features of things in themselves, features of the world itself, were now to be transferred to the faculty of knowing, to reason itself, to what has come to be called transcendental subjectivity.
On Kant's view, reason thus becomes the lawgiver to nature, legislating the very idea of a natural world. Adorno employs Kant's conception of transcendental subjectivity to summarize and model the historical path through which reason, that was to be the instrument of freedom and reconciliation with nature, on becoming total drives out all other forms of reasoning and consequently reverts into its opposite, the source of domination and separation. Adorno contends that Kant's idea of transcendental constitution is, while philosophically false, socially and historically true.
What is consolidated in the idea of the transcendental subject is the socially mandated precedence of abstract categories of identity and exchange over their objects. Hence, the idea of providing the Copernican turn with an axial rotation toward the object as the programmatic movement of negative dialectics means demonstrating-- and this is the crux of the matter-- demonstrating how the object of cognition is more than, different from, and non-identical with how it appears in the context of instrumental reason. That is to say the context of capital production and modern science and further, how we subjects depend upon what we assume to dominate and control.
Modernism is the operation of negative dialectics in art. It is that art practice that criticizes abstract rationality by remaining a repository for an alternative mimetic rationality. Modernism thereby becomes the voice of sensuous particularity and so nature against abstract rationality.
In brief, this is the core thesis of Adorno's aesthetic theory, and it is also what Picasso accomplished in the Demoiselles. Modernist painting, I shall argue, lives or fails by its acknowledgment and fidelity to this moment, for only the Demoiselles self-consciously demonstrates what might be asked of painting if it is to sufficiently acknowledge its object dependence-- its role of being the vehicle for the disclosure of irreducible sensuous particularity, the demonstration of what is more than and beyond exchange, and above all, the revelation of the inner affinity binding social sign, say, the practice of painting, and material nature, say, that practice and thereby any cognitive practices, material conditions of possibility.
So I'm making the claim here that this painting, just this painting, is the clue to all of modern art, just that.
It's a strong thesis. The Demoiselles was legendary in its ugliness, although from the outset Picasso conceived of his brothel painting as a defining, statement-making effort. He filled 16 sketchbooks with preliminary studies. It was almost uniformly reviled by friends and followers who visited his studio in the autumn of 1907.
It appeared aggressive, fragmented, incoherent, unspeakably ugly. So indigestible was it that Picasso's dealer and an excellent commentator on his work contended ever afterwards that it was unfinished. Certainly, at that moment, it was unshowable, unseeable. And it was not shown or seen.
It was first publicly exhibited in 1916 in a small and very brief show. But it's true life, or after life, did not begin until it was acquired and shown by the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, 30 odd years after its original painting. Imagine all the ugly paintings between then. But this one was still uglier and more indigestible. That needs acknowledgment.
The Demoiselles' ugliness provides a useful wedge for opening its stake. I will certainly want to argue that something of the Demoiselles' ugliness is internally related to its performing an axial rotation in modernist painting. Its ugliness is also connected to its difficulty in being seen at all and hence to its coming only retrospectively and very late, perhaps not until now, to define how modernist painting can and must mean.
But this is also to say that the Demoiselles, as Picasso's first ugly painting, along with the numerous ugly paintings he did throughout the 1920s and 1930s, stands at the crossroads of a core debate about Picasso and modernist painting. The matter is immensely complex. But for the purposes to hand, I want to risk outlining it as if it were direct and simple.
Just to make clear, part of what I'm trying to do here is show that all of postmodernism is a mistake. And this is how I set up that problem. In what has become the dominant theory of modernist painting, Picasso's defining artistic achievement is, with Braque, the invention of Cubism.
One might think of Cubism as a version of enlightenment rationalism in which the magic of perspective and illusion that allows an as-if view into a world spatially and temporally removed from our own is replaced by a threefold gesture-- first, the frank acknowledgment of the picture plane, its shallow depth and delimited space as where a painting occurs, as the sight of painterly meaning; second, the systematic replacement of mimetic forms by geometric forms, especially squares and rectangles, whose two-dimensional form mimics and repeats that of the canvas on which they are painted; hence, third, the incremental displacement of representation, significant iconic content by abstraction, formal content. So it might be regarded as the common element shared by most of Cubism, but this does not say quite enough to tell us how the cubist moment reorients painting in a way that prefigures our post-modern situation.
On this more radical reading of the Cubist trajectory, in formalizing painterly practice, or what formalizing painterly practice involves, is the de-skilling of artistic technique in the direction of mechanical technique as part of a general critique of subjectivity in art. That is a critique of all that went under the honorifics of individuality, originality, genius, and authorship, or art's prizing of painterliness, touch, and style. Cubism, continuing the scientism and rationalizing efforts of earlier modernisms, sought to move painting in the direction of a formally purified and sharable practice.
For Picasso, his sharing the development of Cubism with Braque was, at least in part, what made it anonymous and impersonal and thereby truly social and objective. Cubism's intended divorce from the shadows of a forever-private subjectivity is what called up the claim that it was the true language of painting, painting's own autonomous language. Conceiving of Cubism as a procedural and formal language, on this reading, Picasso's ugly paintings of the 1920s and early '30s are nothing but reaction and defense, the vanity of subjectivity reasserting itself once more.
Here is Rosalind Krauss saying exactly this. "In Picasso's practice, classicism is merely the sublimated face of a more powerful threatening force, the automation of art through the linked logics of the photomechanical, the ready made, and abstraction," so just the problem of art dealing with the problem of photography by likening itself to it ever, ever more successfully. And if Picasso acted phobically against automation, deskilling, and serialization, erecting the defense of classicism, uniqueness, and virtuosity, this was not because the mechanical was simply an external threat to Cubism, but rather because it stood as a logical conclusion that could be drawn from within.
So hence the very height of painting, Cubism, is going to mean the end of painting, giving way to photography, to mechanical technology, to digital. And I think it would be fatuous to argue that the mechanical did not stand as at least a logical conclusion to be drawn from Cubism. However, what is disappointing in the Cubism-is-automation view is not that for it modernism fails. Modernism always fails.
Modernism can only fail. Failure is constitutive of all the modernist arts. That's not the issue. The issue is that the Cubism-is-automation view possesses no content, apart from what it borrows from its nearest antagonist, from what will destroy it.
That alone justifies turning back to Demoiselles and Picasso's ugly paintings in search of a painting that will not collapse into the mechanical, the digital, the sway of instrumental reason. For the purposes of this paper, then, I thus want to claim an ugly materialist Picasso in opposition to the beautiful idealist Picasso. Here, then, in just a few sentences, is my hypothesis.
There are two irreducible transcendental schemas for the representation of space, two irreducible frameworks necessary for the possibility of spatial representation-- geometry and the human body. Since the representation of space is a necessary condition for the representation of the world in general, then geometry and the human body are in the setting of modern painting competing, fundamental frameworks for making perceptual experience of the world possible.
Cubism and almost all that follows from it adopts the geometric paradigm. Picasso's ugly paintings are part of a wider attempt to demonstrate that the human body is a material a priori for the space of painting, a material pre-supposition for the possibility of the space of painting and hence for perceptual experience generally. Picasso could not conceive of giving up representation not because of hubris or sentimentality, but because he took the human body as providing the necessary conditions for the intelligibility of painting in general.
The human body is not, or not merely, an object to be represented, grasped, captured, depicted. It is simultaneously the necessary condition of representation. Ugliness is, at a certain moment in our history, the necessary means for disclosing this truth about the meaning of painting. Ugliness is a skeptical operator, the force of the negative dismantling the illusory positivity of beauty. In this setting, ugliness is on the side of materiality and truth, beauty on the side of ideality and illusion.
Part two, ugliness and the beauty system, so one of the bizarre things that I do when I talk about paintings is I talk about paintings as if they're philosophical arguments. And I am claiming that there is a philosophical argument in Les Demoiselles. In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso is not merely risking ugliness by transgressing existing aesthetic norms, but contesting what he had come to regard as the shallow illusoriness, the emptiness of modern art, as premised on female beauty, female beauty as the figure and the bearer of art beauty in general.
That at least some intense forms of aesthetic pleasure have their source in the desiring, possessive, male gaze of the female form was not news even when Freud stated it. As Laura Mulvey famously elaborated the thesis in relation to cinema, "in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active male and passive female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they may be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."
So art beauty is to-be-looked-at-ness. That's where female beauty is. Women displayed as sexual objects is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle.
As I will document directly, for Picasso, this beauty system, as I will call it, was fully operative in the art world he inhabited. Beauty as anchored in the male gaze was the way in which the repressive regime of identity thinking sustained its power and ideality in modern painting. In art, the repressive regime of instrumental reason operates through the to-be-looked-at-ness of female form. Female form is hence the site of domination in painting.
What, however, struck Picasso about the beauty system was not the moral impropriety of its sexism. Picasso was a misogynist, so he could not have been struck by moral impropriety. Rather, what struck him is that it depended on unacknowledged fantasies and idealizations, hence on the perpetuation of illusion, values simply incommensurable with modern self-conscious rigor.
Nothing authentic or honest or authoritative could be built on such illusion-driven foundations. Hence, ugliness became for Picasso a means of disenchanting art, of seeking an authenticity for painting not dependent on either the easy attractions of the female form or the seductions of pictorial illusion. As Elizabeth [? Cowley ?] nicely states the thesis, "his revolutionary purpose in Les Demoiselles was to claim the right to regenerate contemporary art through harshness, brutality, fearsomeness, disharmony."
Les Demoiselles was originally too brutal and fearsome to be seen at all. But after the failure of Cubism, Picasso returns to this impulse. And he would learn how to make irrevocably ugly paintings as no one had before him.
The Large Nude in the Red Chair, The Dance, The Kiss, Head of a Woman With Self-Portrait Portrait, through to the Weeping Women series of 1937, ending in, say, Man With a Lollipop, Picasso's explicitly ugly works are internally related to the pictures of or meant to cause horror, especially Guernica, perhaps the only truly tragic painting of the 20th century. I sense that only through retrospection can the impact of Demoiselles be gathered, will mean finally elaborating it from the perspective of the 1929 Nude Standing by the Sea.
So let me quickly remind you. If you've done your history of modern art course, this will be terribly familiar. But let's remind ourselves of what Picasso thought he needed to subvert, what he was rebelling against, above all, of course, starting with Ingres. Ingres was all over his mind in thinking about these problems.
From Le Grande Odalisque, that's 1814, through The Source, which is 1856, and then a painting which Les Demoiselles is actually mimicking is The Turkish Bath. As everyone points out, this motif here is also in Les Demoiselles. And he's obviously commenting and in discussion with Ingres.
Even worse, or I find worse than Ingres, who is kind of irresistible, is a painter who I now find unbearable and absurd, namely Renoir-- from Renoir's nudes, like the faux discretion of The Bather Arranging Her hair, to what looks from our point of vantage like the paradigm case of the male gaze, the exorbitant, fantasizing, fetishizing, idealizing of female sexual availability in Les [? Dormes. ?] Renoir has now become sexual kitsch, perhaps that, and I just think unseeable, unlookable.
But it wasn't just Ingres or Renoir he was worried about. Equally, he was in competition with Matisse. Here is Bonheur de Vivre from 1905-'06. Although very different, this welcomes the spectator in as emphatically as Ingres invited him into the Turkish bath or Renoir invited his libidinous gaze to devour the sleeping bather.
If Matisse denaturalizes the invitation, the rule of beauty and idealization remains. A year later, Matisse will outrage and puzzle visitors to the Salon [INAUDIBLE] with Blue Nude. Through distortion, sculptural modeling, a posture of uninhibited exposure, and the adoption of a muscular, compact, self-possessed female form, whose bodily contours are repeated by the surrounding landscape, Matisse's partially realized ambition was to invoke an explosive sexuality.
Matisse's thought in the Blue Nude was that the more flagrant the sexuality, the more honest or truthful the work. It is this equation, I would argue, that, in fact, fails here. Matisse's painting is evidently fantasized, a Western nostalgic mythologizing of a primitive North Africa.
Not only is the painting's primitivism and pastoral vision an overcooked fantasy, but it is impossible to now ignore how that fantasy remains essentially a vehicle for the elaboration of male desire, the nude's self-possessed sexuality all the more for the sake of the desiring spectator. Thus nothing in the rule of beauty is changed. Candor does not here translate into truth, but into a more satisfying illusoriness.
It is the overwhelming power of the beauty system at work in even the most advanced art of the time that reveals why ugliness cannot be a side issue for Picasso, why it must become a constitutive element of what modern painting must want for itself. Yet how can ugliness belong to painting if the syntax of painting overlaps with the at-a-glance harmony of part and whole constituting physical beauty? Part of Picasso's technical answer to this will be to loosen the at a glance, providing the apparently static with a complex sense of movement, hence temporality, and relocating the placement of wholeness from canvas to spectator.
Such technical answers nonetheless slide past the philosophical conundrum. Here are four theses from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory on ugliness that I think are at least in part vindicated by the example of the Demoiselles. First, although the autonomy of artworks as wholes depends on fully absorbing and integrating their materials and only thereby becoming fully self-realized, this always occurs at the cost of dominating the materials integrated.
One feature of beauty for which the model of the human form is insistent is the harmonious integration of materials. The more formally powerful the art, the more thoroughly other parts dissolve into a functionally assigned place. In modernism, this logic is reversed. Instead of its material parts being for the sake of the ideal whole, the no longer ideal whole now becomes only a vehicle for the disclosure of its sensuously particular parts. Dissonance, disunity, fragmentariness as the forms that underline that disintegration of authoritative wholeness, of harmony and resolution, hence appear originally as ugly.
Second, to the degree to which aesthetic wholes become vehicles for the disclosure of their parts, then the goal of art shifts away from beauty to, well, something like truth or authenticity or rigor or consistency, some appropriately quasi-cognitive notion that reveals the stakes of an artwork apart from just being beautiful and delivering pleasure, however difficult. Not only is there a protest against the beauty system, my first thesis, but even formally, modernist art possesses goals independent of the beauty of harmonious resolution. This is the central reason why much modern art is wholly unlovable.
Third, Adorno claims that what appears ugly in the first place is what is historically older, what art rejected on its path toward autonomy, and what is therefore mediated in itself. The concept of the ugly may well have originated in the separation of art from its archaic phase. It marks the permanent return of the archaic, intertwined with the dialectic enlightenment in which it participates.
What came first on Adorno's account were the terrified looks of cultic masks. Archaic masks express both being terrified at all-powerful nature and in the look of terror the intention to cause terror and thus appropriate for the wearer the power of the very thing that is terrifying. Masks are primitive mimetic forms, art before there was art, art still submerged in magic.
What we now call ugly becomes so as art distances and separates itself from the cultic response to terrifying nature. Beauty belongs to the dialectic of enlightenment because as a series of mechanisms for forming nature, not merely as a means, but as an end, which is what beauty signifies for Adorno-- nature as end means nature as an end in itself, not as a means. So beauty is the idea of nature as an end in itself.
It both brings nature within the ambit of the civilizational processes of release from bondage to natural ends and simultaneously dominates and represses those items it forms. Beauty is nature, pacified. An immediate inference from this is that the archaic or primitive is a disowned stratum of the artwork. What aren't repudiated in becoming art whose recurrence in modernist art should thus be viewed not as the importation of the exotic, the consistent misreading, but as the return of the repressed.
Finally, fourth, prohibited as ugly are simply all those items condemned by art-- polymorphous sexuality as well as the violently mutilated and lethal. As an elaboration of these contents, Adorno contends that the aesthetic condemnation of the ugly is dependent on the inclination to equate the ugly with the expression of suffering and by projecting it to despise it. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon mobilizes all four theses concerning the ugly-- protesting the repressive harmony through dissonance, promoting artistic advance, the return of the archaic repressed, the expression of suffering in its ambition of expressing the primitive and irresolvable ambiguity of human sexuality, where human sexuality is taken by the beauty system to be internally related to the very idea, the formal logic, of modern painting.
Hence pursuing these four aspects of ugliness is what painting must do if it is to overthrow the beauty system, where, again, overthrowing the beauty system will amount to giving the Copernican turn an axial rotation toward the object. It is this I now want to demonstrate. So the rest of this is going to be nothing but a discussion of this painting.
So part 3 is called, just one more technical term, Picasso's Parataxis. I'll explain to you what parataxis is. Here is Leo Steinberg's summary account of Les Demoiselle's accomplishments.
The picture, he says, breaks the triple spell of tradition-- idealization, emotional distance, and fixed-focus perspective, through a tradition of high-craft illusionism which conducts the spectator unobserved to his privileged seat. Notice how for Steinberg the triple spell of tradition operates in order to place the unobserved spectator in a privileged position-- contemplater, beholder, possessor of what is beheld. Think of this spectator as Kant's transcendental subject.
Then high-craft illusionism, accomplished by idealization, emotional distance, and fixed-focus perspective, is transcendental idealism in art, with female beauty anchoring the system. High-craft illusionism is instrumental reason in art. The spectator for whom the spectacle is arranged is reason, devouring its object.
Hence, in order to break the spell, the beholder must become himself beheld. In being beheld, he must become undone, losing the privilege of emotional distance. In order to become beheld and undone, the pictorial surface must become disordered, not incoherent, but emphatically not arranged for the sake of licensing privileged scene of one contemplater, looking in on the depicted scene, hence breaking the rule of fixed-focus Perspective. The viewer must, in short, undergo ugliness.
Let me address the disordering of fixed-focus perspective first as a wedge to the rest of my analysis of the painting. My hypothesis here is that Picasso deploys what is best thought of as the painterly equivalent of parataxis in order to accomplish the systematic disordering. Literally, parataxis is a form of syntactic ordering in which the sheer juxtaposition of elements, their being exactly next to one another, their sheer contiguity, replaces the hierarchical ordering governed by logical concepts.
If, then, or because, or either A or B, or x logically follows y, x necessitates y, all that stuff is what is to be gotten rid of. With parataxis, you simply have two elements, A and B, next to one another. And whether they talk to one another or not depends on their content and not on any forms ordering them. So parataxis is the removal of external-ordering forms and [INAUDIBLE] for internal ordering by itself.
Painterly parataxis, I want to argue, is the key, or one of the keys, to Picasso's art. Consider the most obvious instance, the far left-hand figure's left hand, which appears to float disconnected above her head. So this figure and that strange hand just floating above her head, without the organizing mediation of arm length and distance, what are we to make of this?
Steinberg thinks we should assume that Picasso here wanted an oblique recession, pursued by an implied outstretched arm raised at 30 degrees. The disconnectedness of the hand at the visible terminus of the stretch then becomes emblematic of this distance. Steinberg then lays out what it means to be employing. So the thought here is it's this that's happening. But because it's all flattened up, all we see is the hand as if it's floating right above her head.
Steinberg then lays out what it means to be employing a paratactic formula at this juncture. The aim is to express the recession of this upper flap not through linear or aerial perspective, not by the way of color or physical clues such as overlaps, but through the suasion of gesture alone. The supposed necessity of an omitted arm between hand and head is offered only to our anatomic intuition.
Our anatomic intuition here does the work formerly done for us by linear perspective. In making sense of her gesture in this way, we become responsible for the integrity of her body and its spacing, its integrity up to us, up to the viewer, and achieved only through the viewer, instead of something offered up to him. The next nude presents even more ferocious problems,
Her left leg does not appear to reach down to the ground. That's the problem we all face when looking at her. The left leg does not appear to reach to the ground. Rather, the left foot appears draped over her right shin, with the right leg simply disappearing.
Given the slight bend of her right knee, we are forced to conclude that she is, in fact, not standing. At one point in a preparatory study, she was sitting in a chair, with her left leg crossed over her right. In subsequent studies, her chair dissolves, and she sinks back. Disposing herself at last like an odalisque, she ends up recumbent but, Steinberg says, seen in bird's-eye perspective.
The idea of verticalizing a supine figure has precedence. What nonetheless makes the idea so difficult to hold in place here is that she is given to us as nearly vertical to the picture plane, while placed in utter adjacency to the, in fact, vertical nudes on either side of her. Everything about how Steinberg goes on to describe her heightens the extraordinary paratactic formulation Picasso is working.
She rests, recessive but still extended, insulated in her own rocking space capsule, adjacency without nearness, withdrawal without attenuation of presence. The full-length projection of her, claiming undiminished scope in the field, makes the beholder work harder. One has to push mental levers to keep an erected [NON-ENGLISH] lying down.
I'm going to claim that's actually impossible. Once we are alerted to her posture and the disposition of her limbs, we know the second nude must be lying down. But given her location in the painting, the lack of recession from knee to head, and her consequent vertical relation to the picture plane, we are never going to see her as fully recumbent.
We cannot ascend to the aerial view offered without losing our viewing perspective altogether. Being unable to see her as she must be seen automatically buckles illusionist pretense. Illusion is just what we are missing here. But that is also what we are missing in her relation to the women on either side of her. Her apparent verticality in relation to their actual verticality splinters or fragments Les Demoiselles' space of habitation, so that each possesses her own space as defined by posture and gesture, a bodily space without there being any space they are emphatically in.
They are truly juxtaposed to one another across the picture plane. Said differently, each nude possesses her own space in the light of her bodily being. Hence, each nude provides orientation and structure for the picture as a whole, which is as much to say that none does.
The idea of the picture as a whole must now go into scare quotes. Each nude is a center, a place, and an orientation. Hence, each demands acknowledgment separately from her companions.
Each nude becomes related to her companions through literal adjacency on the picture plane on the one hand and through being related by the observer, by us, to the space implied by bodily postures. Hence, in the same way in which in the case of the floating hand the observer must through anatomical intuition connect hand to body, so generally through the possibilities of bodily orientation the observer now becomes responsible for making room for spacing the nudes in relation to one another. However, and it seems to me most critics miss this, this effort will fail because the bodies provide clues sufficient only for the possibility of their spatial relation to one another, without enough systematic detail or systematic relating of one bodily amplified space to another to turn possibility into actuality.
This scene can be registered, but not surveyed or fully constructed. This is as much to say that these bodies are the space of this painting. It emerges from them and collapses back onto them.
The impossibility of eliciting an overall spatial structure and the power of each of these bodies to give space by being its source achieve a fierce and wildly disorienting realization with the squatting nude on the right. While it is natural to read her as sitting with her back to the viewer, her head rapidly swiveling around at his, which is to say your entrance, there is sufficient counter evidence in the other direction, above all, that she casts both eyes on the intruder, her head hence so frontal as to make a back view improbable, an hypothesis underlined by the way in which her boomerang hand cuts her face mask.
Conversely, again, from the other side now, the hint of backbone and disappearing pigtail-- I don't think it actually comes through here; the backbone you can see a bit of, and there is a hint of pigtail up there, if we had a better account-- presses in the opposing direction. Picasso's elision of thumbs, the purely angular thrust of arms and elbows, and this paratactic coup, no neck-- her head simply sits on top of her body as if severed-- all these together leave the position of this nude systematically ambiguous, which is to say, undecidable, as Steinberg rightly comments, her flattened, impress-oriented self simultaneously inward and outward, which is to say this is not about flatness, hence not about what will become Cubism, but about a spatiality that emanates from her body alone.
Her body possesses, even exhibits, multiple perspectives, hence a spatial depth concomitant with each perspectival take, while in remaining systematically ambiguous, irresolvable and unmasterable, hence also remaining thereby unavailable. There is no place from which she actually can be seen. I almost want to say that she possesses all the conditions for seeability, while not being actually seeable.
And, of course, this final twist is no accident. For all her outrageous exposure, explicitness, and savagery, she sees more than is seen, as do they all. Thinking through what is at stake here is complex.
Summarizing his account of Les Demoiselles, Steinberg states that through it, overnight, the contrived coherencies of representational art, the famed unities of time and place, the stylistic consistencies all were declared to be fictional. Les Demoiselles confessed itself a picture conceived in duration and delivered in spasms. In this one work, Picasso discovered that the demands of discontinuity could be met on multiple levels by cleaving depicted flesh, by the elision of limbs and abbreviation, by slashing the web of connecting space, by abrupt changes of vantage, and by sudden stylistic shift at the climax. Finally, the insistent staccato of the presentation was found to intensify the picture's address and symbolic charge. The beholder, instead of observing a roomful of lazing whores, is targeted on all sides.
As Steinberg pointedly concludes, the upshot of Picasso's fragmentary style in Les Demoiselles is the dislocation of the viewer from his privileged position until he becomes targeted from all sides, the painting's subject, that is who or what is subjected, done and undone by the nude's piercing, freezing looks. Abandoned all hope ye who enter here. In the viewer losing the privilege of viewing subject and becoming subjected to the cool or harassing views of these women, the meaning of body alters radically.
Begin with the obvious. These bodies do not invite possession. None are feminine. None is presented as expressly sexual.
These are large, anti-sensual, mannish women, with thick thighs, angular, narrow-waisted bodies, breasts, when present at all, more often than not pointed rather than round. The three on the left have small slits for mouths, while the mouth of the two masked figures open in tight surprise to hoot an unreadable denigration of the interloper. If the posture of the two central nudes acknowledges a sexual situation, acknowledges their, in principle, sexual availability, their eyes, bolted on the intruder, bespeak-- and I have trouble reading the eyes.
What do you want to say? Sad, bored, saturnine, careless, and indifference, as if nothing about their bodies, above all their nakedness, their exposure, should be taken as wanting or welcoming or needing-- on the contrary, the first and most obvious conclusion to be drawn is a generalization of the conclusion already drawn about the body and spatiality. Because these bodies cannot be possessed, because that is the implacable character of these bodies, their unavailability together with their possession of their own objectifying gaze, then the natural link between seeing and desire is here broken.
The desire to see, that is the paradigmatic sublimation of the desire to sexually possess that was classically fulfilled through the ecstatic vision of female beauty, is here emphatically severed, negated. But since the classical vision of beauty was a fantasy and no less fantastical in Matisse's Blue Nude than in Ingres' Turkish Bath, then Picasso's painting, precisely in its implacableness, its non-surveyability, and its interruption and dismantling of the possessive gaze, strikes out toward truth against fantasy. It's overcoming of illusion is the mark of its truthfulness, its authenticity.
It is perhaps the first true painting of the 20th century. Ugliness, through its unmasking, brings material truth against idealist illusion. Well, what is that truth? Again, a generalization from the body-gives-space thesis seems necessary.
If the depicted bodies are not the final objects of pictorial perception, because seeing them is not the consummation of pictorial viewing, then these bodies are the conditions of possibility of pictorial space, its material a priori. As each demoiselles provides her own space, so each more generally opens up the very possibility of there being something intelligible, meaningful, to be seen. These bodies, in their implacable variance, create, open, make possible a perceptual relation to the world in general. Perception leans on them.
My final section, my concluding section, is called The Living Body Versus the Geometric Body. Let me generalize Picasso's claim. I guess Beth will like this, since it's a version of animism.
The human body in its sheer material givenness, in its matter of fact material self-presentation, is alive and a source of meaning, meaningful in its simple aliveness. The human body, or more precisely, the appearance form of the human body, itself means and means beyond, before, after, and how we intentionally mean it. So the human body, in its sheer being there, standing or sitting or lying, not even moving, means.
And what it means first is aliveness, or deadness, which for the body is a mode of aliveness, and hence different from sheer dead matter, which is to say it is somehow the human body as itself, a material presence in the world, that is the original source of meaning, rather than consciousness or mind or spirit or language or even desire, although desire is, especially for Picasso, utterly proximate to aliveness and death. That is precisely the upshot of my interpretation of Les Demoiselles. Because the body autonomously and automatically means, then the body necessarily organizes visual space. Visual space is a precipitate of the body's inhabiting it.
My argument, Picasso's argument, is if painting is to achieve an integrity intrinsic to its material practice, then it would have to excise all extra-bodily meaning from the body. Let the body present itself, be present by itself, which in practice means either presenting it through the negation of its idealized forms, say, through ugliness, or by capturing it before idealization has had a chance to gain access to it, presenting it through the negation of beauty, through distortion and dismemberment, or by capturing the body before beauty. Ugliness, hence, becomes the necessary means through which painting could aspire to authentic self-presence.
Consider Woman by the Sea. This paper actually began as a commentary on TJ Clark's account of this painting, so it's come a long way from that. But Clark was just wrong about this painting. And I won't go through what he said, but here's the right way to look at it.
What is the most salient and unmissable feature of this painting is that she is, for the most part, constructed, made out of geometric solids. Her head is just a ball, her body a pyramid, her legs rectangles like those of a table, her breasts small, sharply pointed cones, her buttocks half spheres. Moreover, the ball that is her head is without features, just a stone ball. And it is very small in proportion to the rest of her body.
Not only does the smallness of her head-- and I think this is in general for all the pin-headed bodies that Picasso painted at this time-- drive out the possibility that her body is just an extension of her consciousness of herself, or what self-awareness she has might be located in her head, but for the viewer it eliminates the possibility that in responding to her we are responding to an expressive, affect-laden, irresistible human face. No Levinas face of the other here, no look or gaze or returning view, in saying that Picasso emphatically presses the fact of her geometric construction, I mean to be insisting that he is allowing in everything a painterly rationalist could want.
Here is a body that is nothing but pure geometrical forms. And the purity of her being nothing but a composite of geometrical form matters not at all to her living presence. In this setting, her geometrical construction is not the source of her meaningful presence, but an explicit form of resisting it. And that resistance fails.
The geometry of her form is sublated every moment by its being the form of a human body, with its inevitable grammar of head, trunk, arms, legs, uprightness, et cetera, human bodily form here effectively sublating, overcoming, and subsuming other contestants to the crown of originating form. We do not breathe life into the human body. We do not project meaning onto it. It exemplifies meaning and life, even as a geometrical construction would seek to crush that.
If I can put these claims in the context of my remarks on Les Demoiselles, I would say that what is being asked of us here is acknowledgment, acknowledgement that what is before us is a human body, with everything that means about our attitudes and comportment to it, that we can feel addressed by Les Demoiselles and a curious, emphatic identification with the bather, her standing there in the sunshine, bathing in the light by the sea, wanting something from her, even if we do not know what. This is our acknowledgment that she is one of us, one of us, no matter made of what, no matter how constructed, no matter how [INAUDIBLE] and no matter how geometrically contrived.
Still, this is a human form. In the sheer having head, body, arms, legs, breasts in approximately the right place, she means. And she can only mean the way a human form means because there is nothing else for us to acknowledge. It is a common feature of our experience of art that before artworks, we feel more alive.
The source of that aliveness, I am suggesting, is nothing but the a priori aliveness of the human form. Picasso does not represent any existing objects, but in his ugly paintings presents the bodily form necessary for representation in general. In ugliness, there is the possibility-- let's call it a sign-- of life. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: Take questions?
JM BERNSTEIN: I'll take a few.
I'll let [? Dominic ?] be the--
DOMINIC: OK, why don't we go first to [? Martha ?] and then [? on ?] to the back. Yes, [? Stephen, ?] [? John, ?] then we'll start that way.
AUDIENCE: I have a question about the senses in Adorno, their relation to his philosophical critique in general and the relation to the arts. So in [INAUDIBLE] in [INAUDIBLE] we have a tracing of the relationship between sense and philosophy, the senses and philosophy, particularly vision and its relationship with reason. So we see this running through a lot of language, the idea of [? light of ?] [? clarity ?] distinction.
All these things [? being associated would be ?] a sort of [INAUDIBLE] And I wonder [INAUDIBLE] we can think of or locate moments in Adorno where the critique of rationality lines up with sort of displacing the hierarchy of the senses. So we have the image band. It might be to literal to think in this way, but it might be possible.
We have Adorno saying the ideal of [? thought ?] is to function with [? felt contact ?] [INAUDIBLE] rather than sort of dominating, hierarchy-imposing vision. So I wonder how, if that's possible, that would then line up with thinking of the different arts. So we [? have the ?] visual [? art, ?] and also concurrently we have Adorno as the musician, the composer.
We have the philosophy of new music, a circulation between the sonic and his philosophy in general. So this sort of thinking can become a sort of vassal when it wants to [? essentialize the sonic, ?] [? essentialize ?] the visual. It starts to become necessary maybe to pull them into one another.
Can we speak of Picasso's painting as being somewhat less visual in the sense of the sort of hierarchy of the senses in relation to reason that I was talking about? In other words, if it becomes less clear, it becomes less distinct. Does it become less visual? And what about [INAUDIBLE]?
JM BERNSTEIN: Great, great question, so the first thing I want to say is that for Adorno, that we have a system of the arts, music addressed to the ear, painting to the eye, and dance, literature. He thinks that that is nothing but the experience of our fragmentation as human beings, that we have the different arts simply because we do not have a life, that we have art instead of having a world we can inhabit, and that art is incapable of pulling it all back together again for us. The best art can do, on Adorno's line, is show that each of these arts is not subsumable under reason or the head, that each of these arts has a material integrity, a sensuous character that cannot be reduced to the ideas about it, and that therefore there are ways in which you cannot, for example, understand a painting, except by looking at it. No words, no ideas, no full account is going to work.
Now in the case of Picasso, one of the things I was trying to do was exactly to move away from the idea of seeing as vision-- that's what I call the very idea of the beauty system-- and replacing it by what? I said by mimetic gesture, that the only anatomic intuition, that great-- I can't explain all the things I was doing with Leo Steinberg-- but the idea of anatomic intuition, that we understand these by our capacity to mimetically-- that is in our minds-- repeat. Now it so happens-- and I am delighted to discover this-- that there are things called mirror neurons.
And what mirror neurons say is something like the following, that when I see a bottle, the neurons that activate my scene of the bottle simultaneously activate the gesture I would need in order to pick it up and grab it. That is my scene and my action are even in my neurological, you know, pathways already connected up, and that it has taken a work of, oh, I guess five centuries to make us into the abstract cretins we are. That is to separate these things out as if we could understand things by merely seeing them.
So my first thought is, there is no such thing as pure scene, that that is one of the fantasies that a certain type of art and a certain type of philosophy promotes. And hence, the notion of a reason that is independent of the body is another type of fantasy, and an interesting kind of fantasy. So, yeah, I mean, my line is-- but we can gesture towards a better understanding of that. That's part of what I was trying to do here.
I was trying to move-- what I was trying to do is to move from the idea of us having this as a spectacle for us to us, as it were, having a kind of continual work internally of having to compose it for ourselves. So in being subjected to this work, we have to mimetically think about each of these beings and try to imagine the space they inhabit and so on so that we are activated. The work becomes temporal. The activity of seeing it stops being at a glance, and that the difference between seeing and doing begins to dissolve. Is that sort of the line of thought you were wanting to-- yeah.
DOMINIC: You had your hand up earlier. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: I have a question. At the end of your talk, you suggested that [INAUDIBLE] represent bodies, represent [INAUDIBLE] And I thought that was very compelling. But it seemed to me that in the talk, there were different times where it seemed as though you were assuming [INAUDIBLE] representation. For instance, right now we're looking for a representation of the body. So to figure out why [INAUDIBLE] mimetic representation of the body, right?
And I wonder if maintaining that viewer, that there is desire, is protecting the viewer from one of the ways in which the viewer is targeted or one of the illusions being broken. But we know this is a painting. This is not a human body, right? And so I was wondering--
JM BERNSTEIN: I'm missing something.
JM BERNSTEIN: Yeah, do it again. It sounds like an important question.
AUDIENCE: It seems as though in your reading of the Demoiselles d'Avignon, there was an assumption that these are representations of Demoiselles. And I wonder if the painting is, in fact, targeting the viewer to show that, no, this isn't a representation. And you got there at the end. But the reading required the [? positing of ?] a viewer who is looking for representation, right?
JM BERNSTEIN: Well, yes and no, because the trick here is I don't think we know what representation is. And therefore, I don't think we know what looking at a representation is. So, of course, we're looking at a painting.
And I was then suggesting we don't know what looking at a painting is. And I was saying that our very idea of looking at a painting assumes a let's call it now representational space. And that notion of representational space is what goes on with our idea of what looking is, and hence what the idea of representation is.
So, of course, there is a picture here, and we're trying to understand this picture. But what I am fighting off is that this idea is a representation, because that, I claim, has to do with fixed-focus perspective. So representation is a representational system.
This is a presentation, I would want to say, and in presenting these bodies in this way makes different kinds of demands on us, puts us into a different kind of scene. Part of that is we are, as I suggested throughout, subjected, so that we are not looking on. But we are in-- and I would say-- one of the things I [? made ?] in [? notice, ?] we can come back to it. I didn't tell you what the painting is about.
I said how it works, but I didn't say what the painting is about. But I take it we are in a life and death struggle with these women.
DOMINIC: [INAUDIBLE] that you are assuming something mimetic in order to make the argument that you're making. And even beyond the mimetic, your approach is insistently anthropocentric--
JM BERNSTEIN: Absolutely.
DOMINIC: --that it is a human body, that these are human bodies. And that's really an interpretation that what we have before us is on some level a human body. It's interesting that in the Demoiselles, you never discussed that fifth figure that you assume is wearing a mask. Why assume that fifth figure is wearing a mask--
AUDIENCE: She looks like a baboon.
DOMINIC: --without the face? Huh? I'm sorry.
AUDIENCE: It's a baboon.
DOMINIC: Yes, it looks like a baboon. One wants to infer-- why assume it's a-- in other words, the experimentation here may be going much further and to rather unsettling extremes. That is to say departing from the human figure and questioning our assumption that, in some sense, the human figure must be the basis of our interpretations.
JM BERNSTEIN: What do I want to say here?
DOMINIC: The Woman by the Sea reminded me of the Kafka figure who is much discussed these days, [INAUDIBLE] Why not assume that's an ogre, that figure? I mean, to infer that it's really a woman because it has these things, like a little head, you know-- you may have seen more nudes than I. But I've never seen one like this.
JM BERNSTEIN: I mean, this is the most ambiguous one, right? This is a being who is clearly half woman, half praying mantis. And she's clearly, when she's done lounging in the sun, going to get up and eat me for breakfast.
Now I guess what I want to say is that for us-- but this is an hypothesis-- I'm assuming that the human body, as I'm discussing it, is our idea of what an animal body is. That is I am trying to de-idealize the human body so it becomes an animal body. It's animate form that I'm interested in. Animate form is the form of aliveness.
So I am happy with indeterminacy. I don't see any stakes there whatsoever. And I'm surprised that you think there are stakes.
JM BERNSTEIN: [INAUDIBLE]
DOMINIC: Then Kevin and then Michelle.
DOMINIC: Yes, I don't know. You'll do first, then Kevin, then Michelle.
AUDIENCE: Well, there are great traditions-- I'm not sure if we can call them art-- in which its the opposite mapping. So I'm not sure, but that's not really my question. So I'm not sure if you're making a claim about the painterly traditions of this, versus we, the humans.
But I've got actually a different question. And it has to do with what may or may not be a movement between the aesthetic and the sexual, or the aesthetic and desire in your talk, with the aesthetic being captured by your play between the beautiful and the ugly, and desire/sexuality being at play in the gaze. And the reason it came up is I keep looking. And it might be because I'm not a modernist anymore. You know, I'm irrevocably part of a kind of post-modern era.
But I look at the ugly Picasso picture. And I think, that is so sexy, right?
So them I'm thinking, well, maybe it's not in the register of the ugly or the beautiful, but in the register of the sexy and the unsexy, which then becomes, of course, a question of what I mean by sexy, sexuality. And I come to think of, of course, your colleague Candace Vogler's and intervention, kind of moving from [INAUDIBLE] that sexuality need not be where we are cohered, where we come to feel our identity and our boundedness, where we become fully manifest of who we are, but actually where we become undone, where we get to leave behind the excessive energy of stabilizing ourselves.
And we get to be [? adhesive. ?] We get to be disoriented. We get to not be struggling to position these people. But, ah, I get to be unpositioned. So I'm wondering what you're doing [? between ?] the aesthetic and the sexual and maybe how we assume the position in [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: That's wonderful. So can I say, yes, and then go on?
JM BERNSTEIN: OK, let me say a little bit more then. Since I actually agree with you, let me do this by giving you the kind of four or five standard readings of the painting-- I haven't even mentioned how people read the painting-- and then say how I want to contest that. So the first, and it seems to me the wildly most implausible reading of the painting, comes from Steinberg himself, where he says "Picasso's space insinuates total initiation, like entering a disordered bed."
And for the life of me, no one I know can make sense of that claim. So Steinberg tries something else. I think he must have known that was a flop. He says, "the picture is a tidal wave of female aggression. One either experiences Les Demoiselles as an onslaught or shuts it off."
Well, that seems to me, again, to simplify one note. So what happens is the way in which some readers do it. And I guess the best example is William Rubin.
He says the left-hand side is Eros, and the right-hand side is Thanatos. And the painting moves some Eros to Thanatos. Right, it makes this nice progression. And then, noticing that nice progression, [INAUDIBLE], looking at the crouching figure, says, I'm in trouble because she is the Medusa. And I'm castrated.
So you get this idea that there is some-- now I think all of these interpretations are ways of resisting this painting. It seems to me obvious. And I thought the whole point of my interpretation was to say that one thing this painting does is make the distinction between genders impossible, that this makes gender distinctions because it starts out as women as passive object, male gaze. And it drops all the forms of coding necessary for us to make the distinction of gender difference so that these women have become whatever women are now, unknowable as women. So the notion of women versus man has become undecidable.
I would further say that for each of these women, the fact that they are representation of Eros or death is itself undecidable, that I see Picasso as here trying to say that we cannot cleave a decidable line between the erotic and the risky and the death-like, and that when we enter into this picture, what we are entering into is-- and this is my interpretation of it-- this is the idea of sexual encounter of the idea of an absolutely risky space in which we come to self-consciousness, so that this painting is about the very possibility of sexual encounter at all and what that is. And at that moment of sexual encounter, where we are undone-- and I'm agreeing with you, that's what the picture is about, our undoing. Then the confident distinctions-- passive, active male, you know, active male, passive female, Eros is all good, death drive is all bad-- all of that loses its stability.
And the radicality of this picture is it throws all those terms, I think, into disarray. So I absolutely agree that this cannot be handled in that neat and tidy way. And all the interpretations I know want-- interpretation, of course, in art is very often a way of resisting a work. What I'm saying is at a certain way, this work can be experienced, but not interpreted, that it's undecidability is false encounter, and that encounter is that encounter of the very idea of sexual encounter. And unsurprisingly, you know, this should be on Picasso's mind. Does that--
AUDIENCE: My question is really a follow up to the previous round of questions. And it's maybe asking the same question in a slightly different way, not what happens if we don't assume that they're human bodies. But you're reading this really key moment in modernist art happening with this painting [INAUDIBLE] to previous paintings of similar subjects.
So the question, all bodies, all paintings of human bodies specifically, whether or not we sort of assume that there is a body that's being represented, [INAUDIBLE] sort of take it as a hypothesis that the human body [INAUDIBLE] But my question is what do you make of, or can you do a similar reading of paintings that are not of human bodies? Cubist paintings, the Cubists were very interested in things like guitars and newspapers, as opposed to a tradition of still-life painting or landscape painting. What kind of history of painting [INAUDIBLE] readings of paintings that are not of bodies or not of female bodies? And what would the relation of that sort of tradition of painting be to this [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: So help me out a little bit. I thought I said that the point of the paper was to say Cubism was a mistake, right, that I'm trying to say that I understood the temptation of Cubism. It's the temptation to think about space in geometric ways. Since space can be thought about geometrically, then it's an irresistible temptation that people should try to think that painting be geometric.
So I was claiming that for us humans, as far as I'm aware, that roughly the idea of lived bodily space on the one hand and geometrical space on the other are competing frameworks. And my argument is that roughly the October crowd had bought into the death drive of geometric space and that it was simply a mistake. Now there's a lot of art that comes out of that. And I'd have to look at it bit by bit.
But basically, I'm claiming that the art that emerges directly out of Cubism, for example, a lot of the art that Michael [? Freed ?] loves, seems to me just static, just bad art. And I've tried to argue that. I mean, I've tried to argue what the temptations are in that art.
But I am trying to open up a thought about why we have conflicting traditions in modern art. And I'm trying to oppose and try to show why someone like Cindy Sherman for me is not anything like a postmodern artist, but utterly modernist on this scheme of things, utterly continuous with Picasso and Soutine and the like, as is [? Cabacal. ?] I mean, we can go on and on, as is Gerhard Richter.
These are not post-modern artists, but there's a lot of post-modern art out there. And I say it rests on a mistake about the character of the human body. So I don't want to corral that art. I want to say-- as I'm trying to say this is a sign of life, I'm trying to say that art is a sign of death. That is variations on the death drive.
DOMINIC: The October crowd is about to burst a Cubist gasket.
Would the October crowd like to raise a question?
AUDIENCE: I am not, not have I ever been, an Octoberist or an Octoberite. I would hate to represent [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: And I never would accuse you of such.
AUDIENCE: But I wouldn't know where to begin on this. Just one thing about Cubism, to read Cubism as an art of geometry, to me is a [INAUDIBLE] Cubism. [INAUDIBLE] what Cubism is about. You were looking at the [? heart ?] of vision or the analysis of vision. [INAUDIBLE] Cubism has very little to do with geometry. It's much more of an analysis.
JM BERNSTEIN: Of vision.
JM BERNSTEIN: Right.
AUDIENCE: And it's a radical skepticism of perception. I agree with you that Les Demoiselles has very little to do with Cubism. I think that that separation is [INAUDIBLE] So that's one issue where we more or less agree. [INAUDIBLE] Les Demoiselles and Cubism, your reading of Cubism to me is [INAUDIBLE]
It's much more a reading of Cubism through abstraction. As you suggested at one point or [? another, ?] Picasso never goes abstract. It's not to do with [? abstraction ?] at all. [? That's this ?] reading of Cubism that Modrian and the other people [INAUDIBLE]
But just to look back to some of the discussion, you were asked about mimetic. It seemed to me that that was the moment you [INAUDIBLE] which is quite different from any idea of mimeticism that's tied to the human body. And even as you dis the art historians-- Steinberg, Kant-- you leave out much that they have to tell us about [INAUDIBLE] To be honest, your discussion realized very much [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: It's a pure Steinberg analysis. I didn't mean to dis him.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, [INAUDIBLE] But let me just [? say one thing. ?]
JM BERNSTEIN: No, no, no, I dis one moment, but it's--
AUDIENCE: Your audience, you know, doesn't know the material. And I'm not sure if you speak for historians, much less the October crowd.
AUDIENCE: I love the October crowd.
AUDIENCE: There's a bumper sticker. The crucial moment in Les Demoiselles, the painting is a matter of two campaigns-- and this a cliche. Modrian said it. But bear with me. In the midst of this painting, Picasso goes to [INAUDIBLE] and has this encounter with [INAUDIBLE] And you have to admit that this reminiscence comes much later in the context of surrealism. And in a conversation in 1937 with [INAUDIBLE] he [? passes up ?] the thematic [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: So it is about a sexual encounter [INAUDIBLE] for sure. But it's also about an encounter in a very different system of art. As you say, it's much more [? contrived ?] to [INAUDIBLE]
And I think [? that the damage ?] from [INAUDIBLE] is involved here, too, in [? what's happening ?] as an [? alternative. ?] And I think that speaks to some of the questions you're [? settling, ?] for example. Why do we have to assume that these are human bodies?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, but the mask is not simply a mask in certain cultures. It is not something you put on a human face that becomes a mask that intervenes between human face and the perceiver. The mask in certain cultures is something that you become part of, as much as your face.
AUDIENCE: That was the intuition that Picasso had, that there was another way to think about representation and [INAUDIBLE] altogether. [INAUDIBLE] But that's also [INAUDIBLE] in the [INAUDIBLE] It's not simply [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: Right.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] You'd be surprised how much is devoted to this. You very productively argue with it, but you also, you know, [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: OK, so, first, the obvious acknowledgment that this was meant from the get go, my discovery of Steinberg and his overall interpretation of Picasso, which is an attempt to minimize the role of Cubism in Picasso and all of that. And I mean my reading to be a defense of Steinberg's overall way of taking Picasso. So I'm not trying to-- although I have slight differences, everything about this paper is meant to be a radical defense of Steinberg as a reader of Picasso. And I've been unable to really distance myself from Steinberg, and that's part of my critique of Clark.
AUDIENCE: Why did you say at the very beginning-- one more question, then I'll be quiet after this question-- why do you say that it's a move from the subject to the object? For Steinberg, it's precisely the opposite, the move from the [INAUDIBLE] the iconic, to the discursive phenomenological. It's all about an [? address ?] that's being made, [? not about a scene. ?] [INAUDIBLE] I don't understand your--
JM BERNSTEIN: Right, so that's really just a difference in vocabularies. Adorno means the movement from subject to object as the idea that we do not subject the object, control it, manipulate it, but are subjected, dependent on it. And that's what I am trying to see this painting do above all.
So it's the Copernican turn thesis. That would be the first thing. The second thing is one of the ways in which I was trying just to underline. I was trying to distance Picasso in his use of-- and it's a question about whether it's African or Oceanic.
But whatever he saw in the Trocadéro, what I suggested was the thought that this is not exoticism or primitivism. This is the return of the repressed. This is the archaic.
And it seems to me that Picasso successfully mobilizes that thought in a way that Bois absolutely gets right, I think, and some other critics get wildly wrong. So I didn't hear in anything you said any source of disagreement there. We probably do disagree about Cubism.
JM BERNSTEIN: And by the way, if I had known he was here, I would have given a paper on Hegel's logic and not on Picasso.
DOMINIC: How about Michelle, who had her hand up very early? And then we'll go to the back. Let me explain why I'm doing this.
We have had a conversation going on here over a series of lectures. People who have come to one lecture, this lecture, for the first time, I am not calling on first, for obvious reasons, since there is an ongoing conversation. And I would prefer to go to the people who have been part of that ongoing conversation, OK?
So Michelle, and then you in the back, I can't see you. I'm sorry. You're beyond my line of sight.
JM BERNSTEIN: Who I've been having an ongoing conversation with.
DOMINIC: Let Michelle go first because because she had her hand up very early.
AUDIENCE: I'm hoping I can stitch together some of my confusion about your situating this painting as both a break from certain kinds of beauty systems and the sort of opposition or articulation of ugliness without [INAUDIBLE] One of the things that--
JM BERNSTEIN: Ugliness without?
AUDIENCE: Not seeing ugliness as a key factor in operating [? in the system, ?] particularly how I-- you know, I'm dredging up a whole hell of a lot of of old art history here for me, [? operating. ?] So one of my confusions here is how within modernism, you have it situated with the figure of the prostitute. And the way that the prostitute acts as a figure within modernism and as a sort of, kind of an economic critique, but also ends up not particularly attractively gendered within that system.
So whether it's [INAUDIBLE] or whether it's readings of this painting, it seems to me that ugliness often operates as a threat to women or that which is constituted as woman and keeps her operating within the beauty system. I mean, sort of the opposition to being that which is looked at is to be that which is ignored and not addressed. So one of the things that concerns me is sort of-- you know, but if this is a critique of the beauty system, then what happens to women?
What happens to women when they're figured purportedly within this painting? And you can figure out which one. But either within referenced African masks, where women are positioned as that which is primitive, that which is sort of uncontrolled, or we have visions of this in terms of prostitution and syphilis, women as contaminating and viral, so it seems to me that ugliness is deeply sort of intertwined here with a beauty system and that this painting for me as a vision of something that in some ways offers another position for women or acts as some kind of sort of feminist possibility, I don't-- I'd love for you to help me see that.
JM BERNSTEIN: Well, the last bit, it's not for me to make you see it. So I don't want-- well, I'm certainly not going to try to speak for women. That would be insane.
Since after all what this painting, I suggested, was about was about the undoing of the male gaze, that's how I positioned it. What space that leaves for women viewers, I don't know. And I'm not trying to make a judgment. I was relieved to hear Beth's response, that it opens--
AUDIENCE: I don't speak for women, either.
JM BERNSTEIN: Right, and we're not going to go through that topic. So let me push that aside. What you ask after-- of course, ugliness is part of a system of canons of acceptability and obviously operated in all the ways you suggested. And therefore, the question for me was did this picture, as we look at it, avoid those historical determinations?
That's the only question. That other history is certainly there, and it's been written about. And there were a whole lot of interpretations early on to try to say, no. This was about questions of syphilis and health.
And originally, there was a medical student. So there are some whole ways that people try to look at this. I don't see any of those things in this picture.
And therefore, I simply can only ask-- and by the way, I mean, you know, one of the things that Beth is right about, and one of the things I was trying to underline, is-- I don't know about you. But I've been looking at this picture-- my mother dragged me to see it when I was about five. So I've been looking at this picture for about 55 years, longer.
And, of course, I don't see it as repulsively ugly. I cannot get myself into the frame of perceptual awareness of it that sees it as monstrous in the way that clearly people in 1907 found it unseeable. It is too close, too familiar, too much a part of my sensibility.
What I was trying to generate for you was an understanding of how-- what do I want to call it-- skeptical negativity, how the negative operates. And I'm saying ugliness is a form of, you know-- I'm a Hegelian, right? So ugliness is just an operator of the negative.
And I was trying to ask, how does the negative operate here? And it operates to allow us a certain relationship to this. And that relationship, I'm claiming, is the one in which we have the notion of encounter as its final position.
That's all I can say about my experience of seeing the painting, the sign of life. I am resistant to talk about any artwork in purely ideological terms. For me, it's got to come down to some level of phenomenological engagement with the experience of the painting. And that's what I was trying to press.
Now that may not answer your question, right? I don't know. But then I'd want to hear what the experience of the viewing is. And then there's a possibly of a conversation because then I can ask you to look at other features of the work.
I don't want you to think. I want you to look. And I want you to look in ways that expose you to its perceptual difficulty. That's what I was trying to do.
DOMINIC: [INAUDIBLE] Go ahead in the back. And then I see [INAUDIBLE] has a question.
AUDIENCE: I wanted to ask about the [INAUDIBLE]
DOMINIC: You'll have to speak up a little.
AUDIENCE: I wanted to ask about the thesis you were putting forward because I found it really interesting. But I think I maybe got confused at the end. So I thought that initially, you were going to say something like there are two sort of a priori [INAUDIBLE] ways of representing the face.
Geometry is one. Kant talked a lot about that. Then there is [? also property ?] [INAUDIBLE] or the way the body [INAUDIBLE] or something like that.
Kant denigrates that by thinking of it as almost without [? posteriority. ?] You want to think of it as the material a priori. But then you went on, and you associate that with Adorno's claim that we need to make an axial turn to the object, which I think is the [INAUDIBLE]
But then it sounded like you moved to wanting to say later that what we were really getting here [? is some deep ?] what you called quasi-cognitive. You kept talking about it in terms of truth and even in terms that sounded like something very like the thing in itself. So pure--
JM BERNSTEIN: Ah, no, no, all I mean by truth is-- I'm just Hegelian about this. Truth means, oh, I got over that illusion. If I can blast over an illusion and get past it, then I've got some area of truth. That's all.
And if therefore I understand the notion of pictorial space differently by getting past the beauty system and seeing it operate differently, then I've got, as it were. And I'm saying that that's part of the satisfaction built into the looking here.
AUDIENCE: So is it any more true than the beauty system?
JM BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
JM BERNSTEIN: It's exactly more true. That's exactly what it is.
AUDIENCE: Why aren't these just two different ways of looking at [INAUDIBLE].
JM BERNSTEIN: Because one operates as a critique of the other, showing its idealizations, its fantasies, its hollowness, et cetera, and makes mistakes about the role of the body in all of that.
AUDIENCE: But to focus purely on material [INAUDIBLE] important thing about form and [? substance ?] [INAUDIBLE]
JM BERNSTEIN: As I said, geometry is one of the a priories that we must have.
AUDIENCE: But there's truth on both sides, and uglinses is not any better than--
JM BERNSTEIN: But I was asking not about the pure question of the relationship between geometry versus the body. But I was asking which of those systems will explain to us-- and this is all I ever care about-- why we would care for one minute about looking at a work of art. I am only interested in understanding why we find some objects, that one in particular, something for which we would willingly give up much else in order to have an experience of. And most of the talk, and part of the reason, maybe just going back to [? Michelle, ?] part of the reason I don't like ideological forms of analysis, even though they're necessary at certain moments, is because what they don't show us is the conditions of possible caring.
So what I was trying to do was give a reading of this that would allow it to enter into your experience of the world as a pivotal moment. That's the claim. I was claiming even more than that, an irreplaceable, pivotal moment. But that was the goal.
And I'm saying it achieves that at a certain moment in relationship to another idea of painting. So, yeah, there is a clash of ideas of painting. And I think in this, Picasso defeats one.
Now what we haven't talked about is what all this has to do with modernity, because obviously Picasso cannot think, Adorno cannot think that we love ugliness for its own sake. Beauty is an illimitable human notion. We can go back to that.
But at a certain moment, ugliness is critique. That much, and if its critique, then it's truth. That's all I meant by truth here, and that truth mattered here, as opposed to pleasure and satisfaction, what you get from looking at Ingres.
DOMINIC: Thank you, Andrew, for coming within my field of vision. If you want to accumulate some comments, because a lot of people want to say something, and maybe from what they say, you can address things somewhat more selectively. OK, so how [? about Vinod ?] and [INAUDIBLE] and then [? Kathy, ?] OK? And we'll try to be succinct.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] In trying to read this painting, is it necessary to see the [INAUDIBLE] the point whether we are looking at five different women or one ideal woman, differentiated into five aspects?
DOMINIC: OK, yes? [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: I think my question [? is similar ?] [INAUDIBLE] It does return to gender. I really like [? your tone. ?] I'm just really worried that the work of the distance that [INAUDIBLE] does still in the end requires or restages the universal elevation of the male gaze in the sense that even after the [? scene of desire ?] [INAUDIBLE] destabilizes all of these, it does require [INAUDIBLE] the normative gaze in which desire is [? a moment of, ?] [? like, ?] entering the future.
And very quickly, I wonder, then, how this affects your account, then, of the work of anatomical intuition in the sense that we project-- or the active synthesizing project of our [? expectatorial ?] work. If projecting a meaningful human body is dependent on the male gaze, how does this affect our very work of intentionally projecting a human body?
DOMINIC: [INAUDIBLE] And maybe the proximity decreases the audibility.
JM BERNSTEIN: I'm sorry. I'll move away so that [INAUDIBLE] I'll become a distant figure.
AUDIENCE: OK, I know you say you want to-- that some of your argument wants to be universal in some sense. There's something which is trying to express itself [INAUDIBLE] But I think your argument seems to me to [INAUDIBLE] from your [INAUDIBLE]
It seems to me that your reading is incredibly Eurocentric, or kind of [? you are ?] [? Americanized ?] within [INAUDIBLE] these images. [INAUDIBLE] I'm worried by your lack of questioning of what's ugliness in terms of representing [INAUDIBLE] or [? specific. ?] Picasso's response [INAUDIBLE] that this in your argument seems to be [INAUDIBLE] standard [INAUDIBLE] that the way it's being used is unquestionably a stand in for ugliness when that can only take place by the modernist abstraction, rather than [INAUDIBLE] situation [INAUDIBLE] sources. And you don't seem to question what modernists are doing when they move art out of its context [INAUDIBLE] Yes, I'd like to hear you talk about that [INAUDIBLE]
DOMINIC: OK, we're working to a denouement. So we'll do simply three questions, brief questions, that--
AUDIENCE: Like, along similar lines, I guess, to some of the questions about ugliness that have been asked, I'm just wondering. It seems to me that ugliness [? is in ?] [? physical ?] beauty of the female form and ugliness in terms of ugliness as disjunction, that those two are, in fact, like a [? pun. ?] They're not necessarily attached or the same at all and that modernism perhaps produces this attachment, especially for the figure of, like, the prostitute in painting. And I suppose if your argument can go with some, like, historical account of why modernism seeks to produce this [? pun, ?] this disjunction as, like, physical unattractiveness--
DOMINIC: Aside from the fact that modernists were [? not ?] [? happy campers. ?]
AUDIENCE: Yeah, just in terms of, like, disjunction doesn't necessarily seem to me to be related to-- disjunction, fragmentation, all the sort of painterly features seem to be not necessarily related to physical attractiveness and attractiveness in terms of sexuality or--
JM BERNSTEIN: Absolutely.
JM BERNSTEIN: What are they doing in the ugliness system?
AUDIENCE: Or, like, perhaps does modernism in this sort of work produce them as being aligned? And why?
DOMINIC: OK, we have one more question to allocate. [INAUDIBLE] then [? Ricky, ?] of course, these will be the final questions. Do you want to state your question? Yes.
AUDIENCE: I was just wondering--
DOMINIC: And loud, please, for the people in the back.
AUDIENCE: Yes, I was just wondering if you believe Picasso's work to be a conscious repudiation of the concepts of male gaze and the beauty ideal, like his dissonant paintings, or if you believe it to be just the product of other factors [INAUDIBLE] his painting?
DOMINIC: The question of intentionality rears its ugly head.
AUDIENCE: My question [INAUDIBLE] is how do you separate ideology of [INAUDIBLE] How does that [? enlist ?] in two [? different ?] [? states ?] [INAUDIBLE]
DOMINIC: OK, do you want to start by reformulating the last question, then do a giant [INAUDIBLE] or [? what? ?]
JM BERNSTEIN: So the answer is, of course, it is actually the work of criticism itself to separate the ideological from the experiential. That's what criticism must do, is uncover layers of bias and try to get to something. And it's never, never done, which is why my response to [? Michelle ?] was I'd want to hear how she's reading the painting, because then I could try to figure out where one interpretive system and another interpretive system was generating different phenomenologies.
So the answer is there is no a priori separation. The phenomenological is simply about the irreducibility of the experience to our account to our critical understanding. That is for me, we always have to, in doing criticism, talk about our experience of the work and work from there out.
But it's going to be necessarily ideologically clouded. And then the effort of criticism is to find ways to allow yourself either to discover you can't do anything with it. And there are works-- you know, I admit it. I can do nothing with [? Renoir ?] at the moment.
He is dead for me. He is sexual kitsch. That's all it is, and I can see nothing else. And therefore, I cannot get past. And therefore, that's what I was asking Michelle to say about the work, because there are some works I can't get past the ideological.
There's nothing there. I can't experience without getting caught up in other things. And at other times, I feel, no, no, no. I can get past something to something else. But that's a continual work.
How do I want to say this? One of the things that I am interested in is discovering different notions of meaning apart from linguistic meaning. That is every ounce of me-- I was brought up philosophically under the linguistic turn. And it never made any sense to me.
I never understood why anyone would think language is the basic thing. Maybe this is just because I have a bad dietary track or whatever. But something about my ordinary life just doesn't feel like language is what's at its center.
It feels like other stuff is. And therefore, the attempt to talk about meaning and embodiment is to talk about other sources of meaning for us and to show us how we experience them. So here, I'm happy. I'm really struck that, of course, Picasso is restaging the male gaze. So that's the premise.
But he's also undoing it. And he's undoing it by the demands he makes on you, even to look at any particular bit of the work, how you're going to get the hand, or, you know, the second figure, supine or backwards and forwards. And that's the notion of anatomic intuition. That is the idea that gesture or posture is a form of knowing. And once I say to you, don't you need all that to engage, doesn't that go past the restaging of the male gaze?
I don't see how my capacity-- just as if what I require to understand some bit of animal behavior, right, where I'm also mimetically attached. So I think that part of what Picasso is up to is trying to find ways of getting past this. And, yes, of course, I mean, I think in this case we do know that Picasso did think that.
I don't know if he had the idea of what I call the beauty system. But we know he was attacking the notion of beauty, and it was very overt and intentional. And he says so in lots of places.
Eurocentric, on the one hand, I think it's always a mistake to try to think you can be other than Eurocentric, that it would be outrageous for me, given my training and experience, to think that I could give an authentic account of what it means for these objects to be stolen from people, put in a museum. And we appropriate them. And I'm supposed to tell you the honest account of their suffering?
That would be outrageous, and I would never think to do that. That's not the way to think. What I did say, and I want to defend, is that-- and I thought [? Hal ?] was making a similar point-- that Picasso is the least museumifying, Eurocentric of appropriators, that he recognizes in African art his suppressed other and affirms it, not as what is to be excluded, but as what has been repudiated of us and belongs to us.
And if we think of it as other, then we do not know who we are, and that Picasso therefore had anything but an exoticism here. He thought he saw-- and, again, I think [? Hal's ?] point is right. He wanted painting to be more like magic and less like, you know, pleasurable viewing.
And what does it mean for it to be more like magic? To feel terrified and alive in front of it, and if we do feel terrified and alive in front of a painting, then I think we have got to what Picasso's modernism is all about.
DOMINIC: OK, well, thanks. Thank you very much.
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J.M. Bernstein, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, gave a lecture titled "The Demand for Ugliness: Picasso's Bodies," in Hollis Cornell Auditorium on July 14, 2008.
Bernstein studies critical theory, modernism in art and philosophy, idealism and embodiment, and ethics.
The event was sponsored by the School of Criticism and Theory.