How does the question of painting necessarily raise that of presence? This question in itself captures the very rhetoric of ontological debates on art. As if by a linguistic supposition writ large, the inquiry is a culmination of metaphysical importance that hopes to do away with much of the problems inherent in the translation of art that exists in reality and in the abstract into pure cut-and-dried language.
Jacques Derrida (Derrida 1987: 29) opines that almost “all the suppositions which support the metaphysics of art find themselves questioned, in particular that of form and matter, with all its derivatives”. The way that the interrogation can commence is through a questioning “on the being-work of the work and the being-thing of a thing in all the determinations of the thing that more or less implicitly support any philosophy of art”. Yet precisely because the enterprise of understanding and perceiving art in concrete terms is slippery at best and impossible at worst, the questioning or the process of interrogation will only lead rationalization around in circles inasmuch as the definitions and coded-language do not suffice.
Hegelian propositions (Russon 2004: 56) on aesthetics pose the question of the point of departure, where to start, in any given argument on art. Since there can never be a general consensus on beauty, expression and existence, and on which aspect gains the primary determination of truth, philosophical discourses on art can only go around in circles. To go back to the Kantian “Critiques on Judgment” (Kant 1998: 378-379), there can be no rule to which anyone is forced to recognize anything as aesthetic. The universal consensus merely asserts the assent of the vast majority. Such an idea of absolutes is justified provided that mistakes are not too often made for then that would result to an erroneous judgment of taste (Gordon 1997: 11-15).
So much in fact do the circular arguments did nothing to help achieve an end to Hegel’s propositions that Heidegger describes the work of art as the product of a history of truth “but of a truth which he proposes to think beyond or behind metaphysics, beyond or behind Hegel” (Heidegger 1975: 31). As if by lamenting simultaneously the death of art and the death of Hegelian ideas, Heidegger proceeds to unveil an alternative metaphor to the essence of art, particularly that of painting, within a different framework of understanding and almost phenomenological approach.
In the ‘Origin of the Work of Art’, Heidegger’s tenets bespeak of the same circular ontological arguments to which he sought to terminate in the first place (Heidegger 1975: 32-33). The work seeks to discover the origins of a something and uncover at once the plenitudes of essence and nature hidden within it. According to Heidegger, the origin of something is the source of its nature, or to by what and who does that something owes its very existence to. The work inescapably exists largely because and only through the activity of the artist.
Harping back to a classical statement of art being the product of the artist’s contemplation, by swift and bold strokes, Heidegger argues that a crude material brought under the artist’s hands gains meaning not by itself by the “virtue of form or idea introduced ” (Plotinus 1998: 100) by the art. Consequently, “this form is not in the material; it is in the designer before it enters the material; and the artificer holds it not by his equipment of eyes and hands but by his participation in the art” (ibid.). However, the artist can not exist without the work he has produced because it is through the end-product can one be an artist or a mere artifice of ideas. Therefore, the “work is the origin of the artist; and neither is without the other” (Nancy 1993: 17). Through this symbiosis where both owe its existence to the other, there must necessarily stand a third leg that could support both and which exists a priori: “that which also gives artist and work of art their names—art” (Nancy 1993: 20).
Derrida was quick to pointing out the dangerous circular arguments in these very statements. He argues that by designating things that are works of art, one must have a “pre-comprehension of the essence of art” (Derrida 1987: 32), which only proves the circular abyss inherent in the argument, and as such, “this hermeneutic circle has only the appearance of a vicious circle” (Derrida 1987: 33), therefore, by giving this argument further cognizance, the question of escaping from it only results to an “engaging in it and going all around in it” (ibid.).
Finally, on this regard, French Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy seeks to address the problems the philosophy on art, while at the same time provide a different method to define it through a series of abstraction that avoids falling into the circular abyss. Needless to say, he inherited a world of discourse preceded by his contemporaries and of classical philosophers. Art has become so tied-up to its history and concomitant theories, imbued in the past up to the present with several layers of discourse and philosophies, that the idea has become too over-broad and esoteric as to prevent a pragmatic and basic understanding of it.
Albeit what he proposes does not depart from the questions of language, metaphysics and history, his methods of defining art’s presence and its realities is a more precise approach, and comparatively much more narrowly tailored to suit the needs of capturing “art” down in writing and in discourse (Nancy 2005: 330-331). In all of these respects the attempt is aimed without having to recourse to different fields of philosophies in so much as he tries to create a new one on art. In other words, Jean-Luc Nancy averts the disaster of his predecessor by permitting the art, or specifically the painting, to take its due course by itself and see where it starts and eventually how it reveals its meaning.
Therefore, the very objective of defining how a certain painting becomes what it is can be achieved only when the painting is understood as a continuous process of being and being as it is (Nancy 2005: 331). The only way to do this is to overhaul the extant discourses that only muddle the natural process. In turn, the idea of the painting is stripped off the baggage of previous ideas and thus placed as the crux of the moment, undisturbed by any form of rhetoric and argumentation.
The important assumption to make is that the painting can stand by itself. It is already an independent system that no longer needs further embellishment from other outside and extraneous sources. There are only distinct asseverations as to its matter, product and practice that respectively turn to define one and the other in a process of repetition. A constant dependency on the other, so to speak, will create a series of instances that are heterogeneous and distinguishable. Painting, being largely a contemplative activity of ideas and brushstrokes, gradually come into fruition moment by moment.
To put more succinctly, while a painting may give the impression of a unitized process of creation to a finished product, by no means is this process of creation and artistic denouement an absolute singularity that can only be perceived progressively and as a completed whole. Rather, there are distinguishable moments of difference and a form of uniqueness at every turn of its creation.
At each movement to develop the painting, there is simultaneity of both the end of the first instance and the beginning of a new one (Nancy 2005: 345). There are discrete points that each brushstroke, each purposive addition to the painting, created throughout the entire process. The painting was once this, now it is different in the present and will surely become no less different in the next. Point by point, stroke by stroke, line after line, the painting produces a variety of non-contradictive and verily coherent indifferent signs that departs from the immediately preceding line thereby creating a distance from itself moment by moment. Through this slow and measured step-by-step completion, the painting assumes plasticity of matter and form; the philosophical ramifications of which is that the painting grows instantaneously with each movement in the process up until the entire work is completed. Argued accurately, the painting appears to soldier on into existence at each and every turn of its creation. Every time that a certain discretion occurs, or while there are points of departure from the previous step, the painting fights its way to expose itself as a material. Regardless of discourse, self-evident manifestations to usher itself into being are present that will inevitably give rise to its ultimate presence.
The painting does not in fact seek its very completion to become a legitimate piece of art because at the time of its creation, and by virtue of its conception and birth, it is by itself a work of art (Nancy 2005: 343). It becomes complete at the same instance that the first conscious activity to its creation is accomplished. Even before the discretion is perceived as a whole, or that each moment is plastified and crystallized, it has achieved existence and presence within the time and space that it was contemplated and brought into light (Nancy 2005: 343). The operative word therefore is the inevitability of presence that necessarily arises at the very question of painting and its related enterprises.
Presence, in the most simplistic, epistemological and ontological sense, is the discrete present at the present time and occupying a present space. It is a point in the space and time continuum which very briefly exists as a reality in the world. Although brief, such presence connects to a similar point in space and time which gives it the right to continue to be perceived so long as such points do not end, or that other points still makes that certain connection to it in order to produce a singular whole. A presence of painting, for example, does not disappear and is not forgotten largely because it has manifested itself in ways that it will indeterminately be reflected by other forms of perception and other devices of the senses.
By analogy, a painting’s presence is akin to an organic life that evolves and persists through long periods of time and in a specific space simply because it has begun its existence and will continue to until it dies. The only way that this happens to a work of art is when it is completely destroyed and all traces and records of it in history are likewise erased—as if it never came into being. However, by its very nature, an object’s presence is fleeting and fragile. The fact that it momentarily existed gives rise to the possibility of its disappearance (Nancy 2005: 350).