Eloquence and drawing

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Language, woven of conventions, adapts and evolves, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of its progression takes a delightfully unexpected path. Language, he (2009: 294) declares, was born of the passions: ‘Neither hunger nor thirst, but love, hatred, pity, anger wrested the first voices from them.’ Physical needs are easily signalled; but the complexities of expressing gently nuanced emotions—of swelling love overlaid with brittle melancholy; of restless expectation shaded with pleasant hope—demand a more developed mode of intimation. The first words to escape our trembling lips must thus have been effusive outpourings of raw poetry, only to be subdued and ordered much later by reason. Language’s intellectual ripening carried it further and further from its first poetic utterances: ‘In proportion as language was perfected, melody imperceptibly lost its ancient energy by imposing new rules upon itself’ (Rousseau 2009: 329).

Kanal

 

But painting may be spared this ruthless pruning. Painting, as language, has never been reigned in to express concepts with logical precision. It rather remains an unruly address to the eyes that harmonises with the chaotic cadences of our hearts. We are moved because we discover our passions and imitations of the objects of our passions candidly reflected in paint—it is in this empathetic manner that paintings speak with us. And ‘one speaks to the eyes much more effectively than to the ears,’ Rousseau assures us (2009: 291).

Dresden galerie

Rousseau reserves particularly high praise for drawing. Good painting touches us, certainly; but we ought not overestimate the role of colour in this. Colours, argues Rousseau (2009: 319), operate at a simple sensory level. They strike us immediately, they catch our attention, they please our eyes, but colours alone cannot move us. ‘It is the design, it is the imitation, that endows these colours with life and soul, it is the passions which they express that succeed in moving our own, it is the objects which they represent that succeed in affecting us’ (Rousseau 2009: 319). Colourless drawings retain their expressive force; but colours without contours melt into pure sensory pleasantness (Rousseau 2009: 319).

yellow field

Rousseau privileges drawing with a more fundamental position than words, much nearer to the earth and to our volatile passions. Love, that consuming passion, ‘has livelier ways of expressing itself’ than with the very words it summoned into existence, however poetic those words may be (Rousseau 2009: 290). Love is fabled to be the impulse that compelled the first drawing. Rousseau (2009: 290) swoons with evident delight: ‘What things she who traced the shadow of her lover with so much pleasure told him! What sounds could she have used to convey this movement of a stick?’ And so we clutch our sticks, the ‘Griffel’ of Max Klinger’s (1985: 21) ‘Griffelkunst,’ with renewed vigour, finding ourselves closer to the poetic expressiveness we crave. ‘Writing, which seems as if it should fix language,’ systematically changes language—categorically domesticating it, demanding ever more precise adaptations, shedding its poetic origins. Drawing, by contrast, abandons the pursuit of precision in order to move us in more complex and thus deeper ways (Rousseau 2009: 300).

jedes buch

It is this resolute devotion to the passions that lends drawing its eloquence. Our visual language, built of rhythmic lines and deliberately constructed compositions, possesses all the tools of charming and winning over our audience: we have not the means to persuade, but to stir. We rely not on arguments, but on poetry, and poetry and eloquence, says Rousseau (2009: 318), have the same origin. While we search out logical colour series, and look for technical solutions that make clear statements about light, about form, about perspective, our technical grammar is subservient to our elusive poetic aims. We ought not forget our advantage, for even words derive their eloquence from the visual, as Rousseau (2009: 291) reminds us; they move us most when infused with imagery and colour through metaphor.

haus

Drawing—design—with unlimited poetic potential, saves the visual language of painting from too strict a grammar. Because though there are means of drawing more accurately, more naturalistically, more literally, the best drawings may be judged to harness the grammatical concerns of truth and precision for more expressive purposes, to elevate something poetic in the subject. An able draughtsman pursues accuracy; a good draughtsman tells seductive lies with his eloquent stick. His impassioned retellings are more captivating than the truth; the visual grammar he works within does not ever refine itself towards rational precision. Good drawing orders a painting according to another kind of logic. It makes the painting a painting, not a mirror image, not a soup of sensations.

painting carnage

Our language, as painters, is rooted in the grammar of design. We must search out the visual patterns, impose hierarchies, intentionally structure our images, and chase endlessly after the stirring undulations of our lines, for herein lies their emotive strength. Used forcefully, we may speak with an eloquence that moves our viewers more deeply than any string of words. Words have evolved as a tool of persuasion, and ‘by cultivating the art of convincing, that of moving the emotions was lost’ (Rousseau 2009: 329). Drawing, and through it, painting, has not suffered as a language at the hand of progress. Its conventions, though they shift and change, tie it ever to its emotional source.

Leipziger Atelier

 

Klinger, Max. 1985 [1885]. Malerei und Zeichnung. Leipzig: Philipp Reclam.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2009 [1781]. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music. Edited by John T. Scott. Trans. from the French edition. Hanover N.H.: Dartmouth.

 

 

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In the air

Site © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Site © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Daffurn and Sagrera hold their breath in the space that widens in their paintings. Daffurn’s paintings mutate and multiply as if from within—as if themselves living creatures—with sinewy, bulbous forms expanding by his own imaginative logic, according to his alert response to the physical world. Sagrera’s paintings echo with an eerie stillness, the flat but pocked surfaces jutting abrasively into each other as he focuses on the straight lines that fragment his view. But both painters linger in the space they construct, space heavy with the presence of troubled souls, and this ominous space unites them.

Before building a door © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Caldic Collection)

Before building a door © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Caldic Collection)

Sagrera’s souls are departed, only their breath hanging in the recently disrupted air. Though his interiors hold together as convincing representations, they feel torn at the seams: walls align but don’t quite seem fixed, as though they belong to different and disordered moments. We only find traces of our fellow humans in the trails of wear they leave on ageing surfaces, in the weak hope of their return. We try to piece together their stories through the fragments left to us, but the stories are as fractured as the space. It is the inorganic matter that survives and that speaks for us. Our presence is recorded in its stark geometry.

Crowning © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Crowning © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

We face ourselves torn open in Daffurn’s paintings, stripped of our skin and grating against the rugged earth out of which we emerged. We face our humanity as broken, distorted, inconsequent in his cruel cropping that isolates limbs or removes them. And yet, the human body is the source, the vital organ that galvanises his work. The body pulses with our private hungers and fears; our firm, strong, blood-swollen flesh writhes with the hurt and desire of existence. The very rocks that cradle our mortal forms seem fused with our beating hearts; the rolling earth and monstrous trees seem an extension of our wretched human writhings. We try to shape the earth, we push and pull at it with all our strength, but we must face the fact that we are inseparable from it. That catastrophic realisation is always hanging heavily in the air, the moment ever about to burst.

Painting the bathroom © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Winter Vandenbrink)

Painting the bathroom © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas, Winter Vandenbrink)

Violent colours accost us, each painter subjecting them to light of very different qualities. Daffurn’s are fierce and augmented, making the very air tingle. His light is strong and coloured with a personality of its own, his shadows reverberating back just as fiercely. Sagrera’s colours are set under a more natural light, showing up the dirt and the gritty surfaces. He turns his sober light on the decay we leave in our wake; the neutral shadows that inhabit grazed walls drench everything in a deep sadness. For each, the light is honestly probed, systematically calculated, and cuts through the air that carves out convincing space.

Whitewash © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

Whitewash © Ryan Daffurn (Oil on linen)

From opposing positions and with different intent, Sagrera and Daffurn draw us into disquieted spaces heavy with the drama and responsibility and yet the inconsequentiality of human presence.

Double © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas)

Double © Carlos Sagrera (Acrylic on canvas)

 

PROBED LIGHT
DAFFURN / SAGRERA

Vernissage
25.05.2016 | 18:00

KTR Galerie / activeART Showroom
Tschaikowskistr. 21
04105 Leipzig

Ausstellungsdauer:
26.05. – 13.07.2016
immer Freitags 15°°- 19°°
Samstag (28.5. / 18.6. / 9.7.) 14°°-18°°
und nach Vereinbarung: 0341 – 22 30 24 01

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The gentle ones

Für Oma / For Oma © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Für Oma / For Oma © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

We reserve our respect for the tough people, and the gentle ones often get pushed aside. But maybe the gentle ones deserve our devotion most of all. I know that Oma was not a bold person, that life tossed her about and that she made poor decisions. But reflecting on her life, on all the things we talked about over Speculaas and coffee, on what I witnessed myself, she seems very strong to me. She was full of patience and optimism in spite of all the obstacles. Despite her private burdens, her kindness and generosity never dried up. The cheeky sparkle in her eyes was her quiet defiance, even if she seemed to give in to stronger people.

The Oma I carry in me is the cheerful and talkative one who was always dressed and ready for an outing, always carrying a stash of biscuits in her handbag, always sneaking pocket money for secret treats. She knew that you just keep hoping and trying and enjoying the little things with people that you love. The Oma I bring with me is the one scheming to return to her beloved Europe, the one whose eyes brighten with hope in the face of this impossibility, the one who forged a life on distant and foreign soil, in an unfamiliar language. The Oma I love flatters you with the wrong age on your birthday card, but she laughs freely at herself, and the card is crammed full of sweet words. She makes you dresses that you’ll grow into even if she isn’t sure of your measurements, she takes the bus to the city an hour early to wait for you so she won’t miss a moment with you, she wants to be seen strolling arm-in-arm through Queen Street Mall with you.

We are all making choices, and trying our best to make good ones. As we lay Oma in the earth to rest at last, let’s not judge her too harshly for hers. Some people take life by both hands and wrestle it into the shape they want it to be. Others accept their situation and mould themselves instead, and their quiet contentedness is all you see of a fierce optimism. Her blood and her kindness once flowed through her soft body that hugged us all countless times. Her blood still flows through us, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and may her kindness too.

Gentle people can be strong too—maybe the strongest.

 

Oma

Sarah Johanna Bruins Groenestyn, 23.03.1926  – 02.04.2016

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Ortsbindung

Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Die Ecke / The corner © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Stability is not my main requirement to work, though painting is such a material career, and too much mobility limits my work in terms of scale, time and tools. For even within one city, it is possible to live and work in a rootless manner, in the city itself—painting at home, writing classes in a café, drawing in the gallery, writing philosophy in the library, painting at the sketch group. Sometimes I have the sense that I live in the city of Vienna itself—my workday stretched across its many districts, my books and pencils in my trusty backpack as I bike from place to place. It’s almost more important to feel myself in Vienna than to be able to work for eight uninterrupted hours. The city feeds my work. It is not stability, but a clear sense of place that keeps me content and focused.

I feel with Neo Rauch (in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37), the esteemed Leipzig painter, that:

‘Ich bin besonders raumfühlig und von äußeren Gegebenheiten abhängig in Hinblick auf das, was ich da meinen Leinwänden anvertraue.’

(‘I have a strong sense of space and of my environment, and that relates to what I put down on canvas.’)

Paints

But somehow I lost the unhurried stillness of Vienna in my increasingly busy days. An urgency nagged at me at every station. Even home ceased to be a haven. Long bike rides through narrow streets watching the smoke rising from the pipes of lonely men in singlets leaning out of windows ceased to soothe me. I cannot work when I cannot ground myself, and even my beloved Vienna was slipping out from beneath me.

Desk

So I went to Leipzig for a quiet retreat, where a desk awaited me with a neat pile of Wittgenstein, Kant and Rilke, where a freshly-prepared square canvas perched upon an easel next to a glass-topped table of gum turpentine, wax, Champagne chalk and willow charcoal awaited me. Everything laid out with care and attention by a very peaceful soul, who attended to his paintings like a devoted gardner to his potted plants in a neighbouring room.

Window

The light streamed in the bay windows every morning, and we woke slowly with the scent of brewing coffee and burning coals lingering in the chilly air, Spring hesitating at the door. Soulful Bach cello sonatas filled the air with their deep resonance as we brewed our age-old potions: rabbit-skin glue on the double-boiler, with chalk and titanium white pigment; the rhythmic, physical labour of stirring and painting, of stretching and restretching linen, before we returned to our pictures and our books.

rabbit skin glue

‘Ich bin sogar auf eine gewisse Ortsbindung angewiesen. Der Ort muss mich aber auch nähren, er muss mich atmosphärisch beschicken mit Dingen, die vielleicht in jedem Mauerstein nisten, in jedem Winkel dieses Raumes als Schwingungsrudiment anwesend sind.’

(‘You could even say that I depend on my bond with places. But the place also has to give something to me. Its atmosphere has to fill me up with things that nest in every stone of the wall and linger as low-level echoes in every corner of the room.’ (Rauch, in Mueller-Stahl, 2015: 37).)

view

I escaped to a pocket of Leipzig that gently nuzzled me into a quiet rhythm. There is always more work to do, more that could have been written, paintings that could have been further refined, more moments that could have been stolen for drawing, more books on Ingres, Balthus and Klinger that could have been devoured. But better than all measurable progress is regaining one’s equilibrium by merging oneself with the very cracks in the walls that surround you. At last I let myself just be, and became absorbed into the hushed but diligent pace of another’s place.

hands

 

Mueller-Stahl, Karoline. 2015. ‘Dinge, die in jedem Mauerstein nisten: Ein Gespräch mit Neo Rauch.’ Spinnerei: From cotton to culture (Report 2015). Trans. Alison Kirkland. Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei Verwaltungsgesellschaft: Leipzig.

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Going underground

Vienna is a guarded, secretive city, where people go about their business privately, and very often, quite literally, turn underground. When I think of the artistic climate in which we live, the prevailing worship of autobiographical indulgence and ill-eduated expressiveness, it’s no surprise that artists who care for draughtsmanship, intelligent mark-making and the knowledgeable construction of pictures exist at the fringe. Without even a chance to secede, for we were never admitted in the first place, we retire to the cellars beneath our city and keep our happy occupations among ourselves.

Only, we ourselves have grown so much since we tentatively began meeting over a common interest in investigating the human form. Our collective expands and changes, absorbing new members with their own priorities, and our sessions adapt organically, organisational responsibilities shift hands, emphases adjust. But our many faces reflect a common conviction that makes us something of a movement: our very existence asserts with Wittgenstein (1953: 178),

‘Der menschliche Körper ist das beste Bild der menschlichen Seele.’

(‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul.’)

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© Christine Schmidl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Thursday we put on our second group exhibition. Our familiar Keller was bursting at the seams, filled with the merry faces of our dear friends and families, of long-lost acquaintances; the walls were decked with the astonishingly diverse works of twenty artists—some amateurs, some professionals, some students, some in sister artistic fields, and at all stages in between. Quick, gestural notations hung alongside careful, long-term studies; painted portraits beside pencilled figure drawings; shape-laden abstractions beside colour-drenched impressions of the figure; animated marker drawings next to fresh digital works.

Our hunger for more visual material connects us with so many other circles—our friends include musicians and dancers and scientists who all submit to our voracious appetite for interesting faces. It also means we are fortunate enough to be closely acquainted with exceptional musicians who enchanted us with Grieg and Debussy, performing with gravity and with spunk, showing us that finely-tuned expressive control over their auditory media which we search for in our own visual ones.

8

© Christine Schmidl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Vienna has taught me anything about life, it’s that if you can’t find your place, go underground. Rilke (1997 [1903]: 14) urges us from the distant past,

‘Sie sehen nach außen, und das vor allem dürften Sie jetzt nicht tun. Niemand kann Ihnen raten und helfen, niemand. Es gibt nur ein einziges Mittel. Gehen Sie in sich.’

(‘You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can help and advise you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’) And when you turn inward, sometimes you are pleasantly surprised to find that you are not alone after all, and the like-minded fringe-dwellers will find you. The glamorous, reticent yet ebullient Vienna of our dreams is alive and well, and eluding you just beneath the surface.

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© Christine Schmidl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1997. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine unge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

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Secrets

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I peered into the disquieting world of Balthus last week. A collection of his works is gathered in Vienna, which seems particularly fitting to me, knowing him to be a lifelong favourite of and inspiration to Francis Giacco, who is a role model of mine and one-time inhabitant of fair Vienna. Giacco paints dreamy still-lives dappled with fractured afternoon sunlight, layering patterns upon patterns in a quietly hypnotic fashion, the arrangements comprised of treasures gathered in Europe—musical instruments, luscious woven fabrics, curious marionettes, and globes that revolve and ache with Fernweh. His predilection for Balthus filled me with extra keenness to discover some hidden secrets.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Balthus is shrouded in secrecy. I once encountered a book on him, a picture-heavy volume that began with an anecdote that Balthus preferred an artist statement along the lines of: ‘Balthus is a painter. No one knows anything about him.’ On reading these lines, I felt to continue reading the book would amount to painterly betrayal; I feasted only on the pictures. And when I finally met him face-to-face at this exhibition, I honoured his wishes and ignored the copious text printed on the walls of the Kunstforum. I can’t tell you anything about Balthus; I even forgot to check where he is from. But isn’t that a wonderful thing?—To talk, rather, about his paintings.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His paintings cloak the rooms in an overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere. This is surprising, given their apparent simplicity, their bold, clear, often flattened shapes, their often very plain subject matter: children loafing about, unpretentious portraits, still lives. How can such simple imagery fill one with such a sense of dread, leave one so unsettled? Perhaps it is the quiet implications: the tense and inappropriate relation of girl to boy; the gutting disinterest of men in their wives; the invitation to see just a little too far up a little girl’s dress; the huge knife thrust menacingly through the loaf of bread. And the evil cats, perched like demons above melodramatically exuberant figures. One feels oppressed in these rooms, for Balthus alone is not to blame: we are complicit in his quiet evils because we fail to avert our eyes.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And why can’t we look away? I think it is something to do with how formally strong the paintings are. Shapes are pieced together firmly; arcs swing through figures and drive our gaze forcefully. People are reassuringly geometric: strong, balanced and mathematically pleasing. But the flatness is deceptive—foreshortened arms reveal Balthus’ understanding of space, but deliberate curvature of it. He shatters the picture plane with tables bent into conflicting perspectives; he plays with proportions and mocks our sense of sight, subduing it to his own dark purposes.

The drawing in the paintings is usually firm, calculated and assured. This confidence is beguiling. The apparent simplicity of the paintings is really supported by intelligent, knowledge-laden lines, surreptitiously used with purpose. We are enchanted by the result, but the structure beneath is carefully planned and artfully disguised. I think Balthus’ drawing, though not aiming at naturalism, is not as naive and simple as it seems. This is why the paintings strike us so forcefully.

Balthus

Balthus

And then there is the paint. Balthus’ surfaces are often rough, paint viciously scrubbed on, the pock-marks gleefully disturbing the pictorial flatness. This dimension cannot be overstated when describing Balthus’ painting: otherwise low-contrast, neutral colours—as in his landscapes—which gently merge and ripple, are simultaneously hacked as if from the inside thanks to this many-layered scumbling. ‘The idea of a layered process is celebrated and the opticality of the surface is animated by a lively push and pull at the scale of the weave’ (Nelson, 2010: 156). This rough manner of applying paint works its own quiet effect on the viewer in unison with the content of the image and with the careful construction of it. Balthus gives the paint itself a voice, and it is a coarse, goading one, just as provocative as the cats and the knives and the underage girls.

Copy after Balthus with bonus Holbein

Copy after Balthus with bonus Holbein

I think an important key to Balthus is the possibility of friendship with children. This is a very delicate subject, fraught with predatory dangers. And yet, on the flip side, there is some sort of violence we wreak on children when we oppress them for their rational deficiencies. Children are not fully rational, but nor are they completely ignorant, and certainly not innocent. Meeting children on a more level footing involves acknowledging their evils, and permitting them the space for self-determination. It is a desperately lonely feeling as a child to feel that you know yourself, that you have independent thoughts, and yet you are an outsider to the world of decision-making; you are an observer of your own life. And yet, perhaps this childhood solitude is just what Balthus wrenches us back to, as Rilke (1997: 41-42). writes:

‘Aber vielleicht sind das gerade die Stunden, wo die Einsamkeit wächst; denn ihr Wachsen ist schmerzhaft wie das Wachsen der Knaben und traurig wie der Anfang der Frühlinge. Aber das darf Sie nicht irre machen. Was not tut, ist doch nur dieses: Einsamkeit, große innere Einsamkeit. In-sich-Gehen und stundenlang niemandem begegnen,—das muß man erreichen können. Einsam sein, wie man als Kind einsam war, als die Erwachsenen umhergingen, mit Dingen verflochten, die wichtig und groß schienen, weil die Großen so geschäftig aussahen und weil man von ihrem Tun nichts begriff.’

(‘But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.’)

spring1

Seeing eye-to-eye with children and their simple but nonetheless penetrating sorrows is probably what is required to truly befriend them. I suspect few people really befriend children, preferring rather to look down on them, talk down to them, and consider their inferiority endearing, their companionship like that of a stupidly loveable dog. Balthus intimates that children are more like cats: crafty and guileful, if at our adult disposal. And Balthus disconcerts us by coaxing us into the secret world of childhood, inviting us to converse with children as equals. I think of Gurdweill’s unfussy interactions with children in David Vogel’s (2013 [1930]: 93-94) novel:

‘Gurdweill stood up to leave. He pinched Fritzi on his smooth, fat cheek; the baby cupped Gurdweill’s nose in his clumsy hand; and an alliance was cemented between them. … And now he had a new friend: little Fritzi!’

But perhaps such friendships are themselves a fantasy, being by definition imbalanced, and requiring some artificiality on the part of the adult. Perhaps it is this very imbalance that Balthus disquiets us with. He leaves us feeling that such friendships are, after all, unnatural, and inevitably shadowed by dread and secrecy.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘How do we then progress
to a ‘childlike wisdom’
in this confusing universe
of impossible electrons,
without completely
reverting back to
childhood?’

(Jacques Pienaar)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1997. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine unge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Vogel, David. 2013 [1930]. Married life. Trans. Dalya Bilu. Scribe: Melbourne.

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Disrespect

aktzeichnen

Philosophy demands a certain arrogance. Clear and deep thinking requires a solid grounding in and familiarity with the thought of our forebears, as intelligent painting requires an intimate communion with painting of the past. But the type of philosophy that hovers over the past, circling like ravenous vultures, and only cautiously picking at things that have already been thought, tentatively offering patches for small tears in the fabric, or perhaps safely offering an historical overview of thinkers long deceased, is desperately timid.

tinte

This acceptable sort of philosophy, while courteous and respectful, seems to discard the real purpose of philosophy, the true inquisitive nature of it. Philosophy is a razor-sharp tool that can be turned upon the world to make incisive insights, to fundamentally change our view of it. Wittgenstein (1953: 47) says decisively and dramatically, ‘Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.’ (‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’)

pencil

It’s difficult to imagine Wittgenstein diligently attending seminars on how to narrow the scope of his research questions, how to situate his small contribution among the multitudinous academic literature, how to structure his dissertation—beginning with the immovable words of some philosophical heavyweight, detailing the near impenetrable ideas and only at the end offering some humble amendments. Did Wittgenstein’s potential supervisors chide him, ‘Herr Wittgenstein, don’t be a hero’? Imagine the number of scholars who would be put out of work had Wittgenstein been deterred by advice that philosophy should not be visionary!

Ivo

My philosopher friend Kim Solin (2013: 57) notes in his own dissertation that ‘there is sometimes an assertive tone in Wittgenstein’s writings, since the descriptions and objects of comparison need to be taken seriously, so that they will change the way we view things.’ Wittgenstein’s arrogance stems not exactly from disrepect or disregard for the past, but from a firm belief in how philosophy operates, and why. Unlike in science, Wittgenstein (1953: 47) is at pains to make clear, we are not proposing and testing some hypothesis with the goal of piecing together a theory. We do not need an army of lab-rats filling in gaps and completing Kant’s or Descartes’ or Hume’s ‘theories.’ Philosophy, rather, turns a light on the problems we encounter in life, be they moral problems or aesthetic problems, mathematical problems or political problems. It allows us, at a distance from the practical domain, to inspect the nature of those problems, to deepen our understanding and to help us find a new way forward:

‘We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its power of illumination—i.e. its purpose—from the philosophical problems. … The problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

This healthy disrespect for restrictive academic processes is a sort of intellectual self-preservation: Solin (2013: 61) writes that it is not exactly that we lack respect, rather that ‘one should try to protect oneself from being taken into possession by [in his case] mathematics. … Showing some disrespect might just well be what is needed for that.’ The structures within academia attempt to preserve rigorous standards of thought. They prevent crackpots from publishing incoherent madness; they extend a tradition rather than permitting ruptures; they encourage common languages among scholars, rather than letting them rave unintelligibly past each other. I have nothing against this. But these firm structures should not paralyse us with fear—they should not possess us. We have something to say, and it might not only be a counter-claim. We are observing the world, too, and probing into the nature of problems. Our backgrounds—some practical, some theoretical—afford us different insights. Facing the wall of opponents we are expected to politely challenge, we feel nothing but an indescribable fatigue. Perhaps we can leave such work for others—perhaps we have some new and optimistic description to offer.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

Of course, this does not mean the world is unbounded. We stand firmly upon the work that has gone before, we read and read, we learn to think by thinking through the thoughts of others. We set meaningful and useful parameters for our own work, we attempt to define limits. We strive after clarity and humbly keep quiet and listen when we meet an idea worth attention. Our attitude reflects Wittgenstein’s, as elucidated at the outset of his Tractatus (1963 [1921]: 7):

‘Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen, oder vielmehr—nicht dem Denken, sondern dem Ausdruck der Gedanken: Denn um dem Denken eine Grenze zu ziehen, müßten wir beide Seiten dieser Grenze denken können.’

(‘Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and what one cannot speak about, one must keep quiet about. This book wants to draw a limit for thought, or rather—not for thought, but for the expression of thoughts: for in order to find the limits of thought we must be able to think on both sides of that border.’)

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

We do not deny the significance of what came before us, neither in art nor in philosophy. We do not seek to upend and discard everything and begin afresh. We only hope for enough room to advance our own ideas. We fear that, like Nelson (2010: 161), we might be forced to ‘come laden with contemporaneous references which plug up my case with footnotes, as though art were a leaky vessel, the flow of whose life-humours only art-historical paranoia can staunch.’ For we agree with Nelson (2010: 161) that ‘no number of footnotes carries as much intellectual authority as a poetic insight.’ And we do not forget that it was Wittgenstein (1963 [1921]: 7-8) himself, that revered pillar of philosophy, who brazenly commenced his work with a shamelessly visionary attitude:

‘darum gebe ich auch keine Quelle an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.’

(‘Hence I am also not providing any sources, because I am indifferent as to whether what I thought was already thought by another before me.’

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Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Solin, Kim. 2013. The mathematician as mathematics: Theories of computation in light of Wittgenstein’s thought. Uppsala: Filosofika institutionen.

Wittgenstein. Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963 [1921]. Tractatus logico-philosophicus Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Suhrkamp.

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