Common ground

Ode to the rooftops (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I

Pursuing a link between moods and art, Schmetkamp (2017: 1683) claims that ‘moods are the expressive equivalent of perspectives, of how we perceive and are in the world.’ Schmetkamp (2017: 1683; 1693) argues that films, in invoking particular moods, invite a shift in perspective. This is an initially attractive suggestion, because it seems to lead us away from the impulse to understand a work of art, a cognitive act, and to permit us to encounter the work of art in a pre-reflective way. In the case of painting, we might correspondingly argue that rather than confronting symbols in need of interpretation, we confront the perspective of another person–the painter–and are invited to try on that perspective, inhabit it, and perhaps adjust our own perspective accordingly.

But the idea of perspective-shifting is still chained to the impulse to understand another, as if the head of another is a ‘container of objects’ to which we somehow seek to gain access (Slaby 2014: 253; 255). Perspective-shifting is one way of describing empathy: as an ability to inhabit another’s perspective and thereby predict and share in their emotions (Goldie, 2011: 303; Slaby, 2014: 249). Slaby’s (2014: 252) compelling critique of empathy will thus help us grasp why perspective-shifting is equally unsatisfying in the realm of aesthetics, because of the parallel importance of agency. Beyond mere perspective-shifting, I propose that a painting, as an affective encounter between painter and viewer, offers a fertile, physical ‘we-space’ in which, rather than attempting to understand a painter, we may to some extent co-author our positions in the world: a shared and ongoing project (Krueger, 2011: 644).

 

II Three broad categories: Perception, knowledge and agency

Empathy can be very broadly conceived in two ways. The first captures the directness with which we sometimes relate to others. Sometimes our emotional response to another person is automatic, involuntary and passive (Slaby, 2014: 255). Their emotions are not buried or locked away, but visible at the surface, directly available to perception (Slaby, 2014: 255; Zahavi, 2001: 153). Such direct responses are sometimes classed as ‘lower level’ empathy, for not being cognitively demanding (Slaby, 2014: 251). They encompass the kind of matching that goes on when a group spreads its contagious solemnity or rage or excitement, or the simulation explained by mirror neurons (Goldman, 2011: 33-36). Parallels with art may be traced in Tolstoy’s (1896) memorable but largely rejected contagion theory (Wollheim, 1980: 119), in which an artwork directly infects us with its emotional content. Any such superficial matching is problematic because it can be completely detached from the context of the original emotions–Coplan (2011: 7; 8) expresses this concern in terms of insufficient accuracy, and argues that empathy demands, in addition to some kind of matching, a more active and imaginative engagement with the emotions of others. Simply feeling along with someone without appreciating why they feel as they do seems too primitive a response to be considered empathy.

The second broad way is to prioritise the cognitive or reflective aspect of our encounter with others, and it treats emotions as a kind of knowledge to be obtained. This is where the urge to understand becomes particularly prominent. Another person’s emotions become pieces of information to be accessed and interpreted, they demand some active consideration, not unthinking mimicry, and once we have organised this information we are in a better position to say that we understand the other person as a whole. These responses are grouped as ‘higher level processes’, emphasising ‘the information-processing sense of that term’ (Coplan, 2011: 5; Goldman, 2006: 39; Goldie, 2011: 304). Goldman (2011: 36-38) calls it the ‘reconstructive route’ to empathy. The idea of a privileged first-person position, in which I have special access to my own emotions, fuels this attitude. While we might simply distinguish between our own experience of an emotion and another person’s experience of us having that emotion, emphasising a phenomenological difference, there is often rather the implication that we hold ‘an epistemically privileged position’ towards our own emotions–that we can know them more accurately than another (Slaby, 2014: 254). It becomes questionable here how far one can call such understanding of another person ‘empathy,’ since a psychopath could ably perform such intellectual puzzle-solving but would seem to lack a necessary element of feeling. Analogously, intellectually decoding a painting seems to miss the affective richness of a painting, which we would rather hope would move us.

Both of these broad categories, though they prioritise very different things, are united by a common underlying assumption. Whether perceptually accessed and mirrored, or reflectively computed and understood, emotions are on both accounts reified (Slaby, 2014: 257). From either position, emotions are treated as fixed objects, whether reproducible, observable, discoverable or knowable (Slaby, 2014: 253), whether by oneself or by another. It is this unsatisfying ‘common pattern’ of treating our experiences as bytes of information locked away in storage or transmitted as complete units that leads Slaby (2014: 253; 255) to defend a third broad conception of relatedness, one rooted in the phenomenological tradition, that shatters the very concept of empathy.

This third broad category, to which interaction theory belongs, moves away from these pre-packaged inner states and towards an active, embodied agency that is bound up with the world itself (Krueger, 2010: 644). It stresses the ongoing, future-oriented authorship of our perspectives. And, as beings wrapped up in the world, it emphasises the shared aspects of that agency (Slaby, 2014: 255). Abandoning the attitude that a painter embeds little packets of emotional information into a painting, which either directly arrest us or which we systematically interpret, we might instead approach the painting as a physical setting for the active construction of perspectives. The painter wrestles with her perspective in laying down paint; the viewer wrestles with his in mingling the two perspectives–not, as Schmetkamp (2017: 1683) claims, merely trying the painter’s perspective on. Agency changes the interaction between these perspectives, opening up a more sophisticated exchange than perspective-shifting. First we must consider what a perspective is.

 

III Perspective

Drawing heavily on Merleau-Ponty, I frame perspective in terms of an ongoing project of positioning oneself in an ever-shifting world. Merleau-Ponty (2012 [1945]: 77-80) challenges the scientifically-driven assumption that the world is static and objectively knowable, that is, able to be described as if ‘from nowhere,’ stressing two crucial points. The world, in which we are inextricably immersed, can only be described in terms of relations. This is a familiar enough concept for a painter, who does not (usually) attempt to transcribe blue or yellow, as though these hues possessed fixed frequencies, but who rather sees that a mixture of grey next to a vivid yellow can appear blue: it is the relation between these hues that gives a certain effect. Likewise, the hills that shimmer a soft blue in the distance do so precisely because of the yawning gulf between us and them. The painted blue describes no objective feature of the hills, but rather the relation between us and the hills. (It is no accident that Leonardo da Vinci (2008: 113) adds this hue-shift to his list of types of perspective, calling it ‘perspective of colour.’) A perspective must be made sense of in terms of our relations with other constituents of the world.

Secondly, and drawing on Husserl (1973 [1948]: 87), Merleau-Ponty (2012: 196) emphasises the indeterminacy of the the world. It ‘shimmers’ at its edges, open-ended, unresolved and brimming with unactualised possibility. Part of our being in the world involves acting on our possibilities, realising some and abandoning others, a process that reconfigures the world such that it offers a fresh spread of possibilities with every act. Our actions influence and alter how the world unfolds–we are participatory agents, and, what is more, we are directed towards an unfixed future. Our actions seize some possibilities and concretise our position in the world: I stand here in relation to the bluish haze of Kahlenberg; I stand here in relation to the restless rumblings of nationalism. And our perspective is never complete, we are continually authoring it as we move through the world.

Our perspective, then, may be considered quite literally as a view from where we stand in relation to others and the world, as a worldview, but importantly as an actively constructed and future-looking worldview that constantly incorporates new input even as it influences that world. Agency emerges as an integral part of perspective thus considered. Perspective proves to be not a passive apprehension of a predictable and rigid world, but a ‘practical point of view’ (Slaby, 2014: 252). In taking up our positions, we ‘enact a world’ (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007: 488). As agents, argues Slaby (2014: 253), we are precisely not a hold for discrete entities and replicable states; rather, each of us has ‘a say in specifying, in ultimately deciding and committing to what one will have on one’s mind,’ and we partake in an ‘active, prospective engagement with the world: a future-directed positioning towards what goes on.’

This positioning is far more than descriptive; it suffuses the world with significance. Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 185-187) argues for a practical significance, or ‘mattering,’ generated by our immersion in our projects and our seamless fusion with our tools; Sartre (1998 [1943]: 36-38) argues that acts as small as lighting cigarettes, or even failures to act, are the very things that affirm who we are and both indicate and bestow significance. The failure to quit one’s comfortable job and become a painter demonstrates that one wants a life of security and stability more than one wants to paint, however much one apparently regrets this inaction.

These embodied ways of conceiving of significance contrast starkly with the search for meaning and its linguistic overtones. Meaning or sense prompts us to make a propositional substitution, to uncover an objectified packet of knowledge which the thing directly encountered stands for. In replacing something with its ‘meaning,’ we claim we finally understand it and its import. This attitude puts us in a troubling position when relating to others: we presume we ‘have to work out each other’s minds much like [we] do with scientific problems’ (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007: 486). De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007: 486; 487) thus begin to flesh out an embodied, active and shared approach to introducing (rather than uncovering ready-made) significance into the world: ‘the enactive notion of sense-making.’

De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s (2007: 497) account of participatory sense-making gives another slant to perspective, emphasising that agents may cooperatively and expressively position themselves. This begins to look a lot like Slaby’s (2014: 255) alternative to empathy, a ‘co-presence’ that echoes Heidegger’s (1962 [1927]: 118) Mitwelt. Far from trying to get inside one another’s heads, or to bridge some unfathomable abyss, agents accept what they perceive at the surface–the cheerful smile of their cycling companion as they surge up Kahlenberg–and construct a shared perspective (Slaby, 2014: 255-6). Two happy parties navigate vineyards and Heuriger vitrines and jointly author a golden afternoon in the Viennese hills, an experience different from that which each would author alone, and without needing to imagine themselves inside the head of the other to forge an honest and valid connection. ‘We thus drop the assumption,’ declares Slaby (2014: 256) ‘that the goal of interpersonal relatedness would inevitably have to be an encompassing understanding of the other person.’

 

IV Painting

Painting could arguably occupy a special place in such embodied discussions of affective relatedness. A painter goes a step further when positioning herself in the world: she gives her perspective physical form. Painting is another kind of act; the painter not only takes up a position in the world, considering and selecting and rejecting certain possibilities as she applies paint, but she also openly lays out that position in that same act. The painting is like a smile. But instead of saying that a painting opens up the painter’s mind to us (as though it were some closed-off realm), we ought to say that a painting lets us see through the painter’s eyes. ‘The view from here,’ she declares, laying it out before us, actualising those fleeting moments in a carefully arranged and subtly related way, ‘looks like this.’

But how can we say, ‘The view from here looks like this’ when paintings invariably lie? The soul of painting seems to be precisely the way it deviates from our ordinary perceptual experience, whether very subtly, as in very naturalistic paintings, which nevertheless involve choices about contrast and atmosphere and how fine-grained the modelling should be, or whether quite dramatically, as when edges dissolve into one another, or crude chunks of colour merely suggest masses, or when the world is fragmented into flat and interlocking geometric forms. Rather than saying abstractly that the painter gives her perspective physical form, we ought to investigate what this actually consists in.

In the paintings of Ruprecht von Kaufmann, for example, people fly through the air, or grow fish heads, often have no head at all, or their toes melt together into a single sturdy foot mass. This is certainly not how the world literally looks; we are not dealing with mere perception. If we are to cast these paintings as von Kaufmann’s perspective, we need to admit other modes of intentionality into perspective. Imagination is very relevant here: von Kaufmann invents things that could not exist. But there is also a sense of anticipation, of imagining how things might unfold: a leaping person or a diving person on a certain trajectory, headed towards a partly visible and partly foggy future. Remembering is equally important. Von Kaufmann’s deeply emotional experiences with family, loss and doubt haunt the paintings.

Remembering even plays a much more pedestrian, technical role in his work (von Kaufmann, 2014). Von Kaufmann actively observes the world about him and commits things to memory before reprising them in his paintings. The construction of a chair, the bone structure of a particular face, the character of a foot, the pattern of a fabric all resurface in his paintings after long gestation periods. Here I want to be careful not to say that he stores them up, fully-formed images catalogued in Augustinian caverns of memory, ready to be summoned (St Augustine, 2009: 152; 172). I want to emphasise that our memories are permeated and transformed by other emotions, other encounters and other expectations. When von Kaufmann paints a remembered sofa, it is a sofa embedded in a fabric of experiences, and it emerges from his brush stained by those experiences–it sags mournfully, it fades with resignation. How the world ‘looks’ is shorthand for: ‘this is a visual approximation of many interrelated and nuanced modes of intentionality towards the world.’ Von Kaufmann’s mellow and faded purples, the dampness that permeates his world through sludgy textures and glistening highlights and trickles of paint all combine to work up an uneasy mood.

 

V Moods and emotions

Moods are not emotions, except perhaps for Heidegger (1962 [1927]: 136), who uses the terms more freely and interchangeably. There are very precise ways of teasing the two apart (see for example Gallegos, 2017: 1500), but a simple distinction on the grounds of intentionality will do here (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1684-5). Emotions are usually considered to be directed at some particular object: I am sad about the cancelled Kahlenberg outing. But von Kaufmann’s paintings, though they might leak a sort of sadness, cannot really be said to express sadness about any particular thing. Rather, they build up a diffuse kind of tone or atmosphere, which might be better described as a feeling directed toward the whole world or even toward existence itself: a mood. Heidegger (1962: 179; 228-235; 1978: 99) goes so far as to say that such undirected moods are the precondition for finding ourselves in a world at all, that our every encounter with the world happens through some pervading sense of menace or serenity or boredom or some other mood. Ratcliffe (2005: 49; 52) describes a similar affective background of bodily ‘existential feelings,’ which are similarly non-intentional but set the scene for the way we open up onto the world. Although there are fearful objects in von Kaufmann’s paintings, such as fish-headed men, we are not really invited to fear them or direct some emotion at them. Still, they draw some affective response from us, especially situated as they are in a murky and oppressive old room with their damp skin, casually violating one another. Thus, it would be more philosophically precise to say that von Kaufmann’s paintings are mooded.

Schmetkamp (2017: 1682-3) suggests that this more careful affective distinction dramatically changes the aesthetic terrain. While emotions and art have an enduring philosophical relationship (reaching right back to Plato’s (Rep. 595a-b) admonitions against the arts for their propensity to move and thus destabilise us), moods open up fundamentally different questions about how we relate to art, while holding fast to their affective core. Having elaborated what we mean by perspective, particularly in terms of painting, we are in a better position to look at Schmetkamp’s (2017: 1683) main claim that ‘moods are the expressive equivalent of perspectives.’ Moods, by her account, add an affective layer to perspective, a layer quite distinct from directed emotions. This has a very Heideggerian flavour, especially insofar as she invokes their pre-reflective, ‘world-disclosing capacity’ (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1684-5). The moods of others, expressed in artworks, she asserts, ‘assail human beings holistically,’ enabling them to ‘comprehend a perspective in an encompassing manner’ (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1683). Moods are not perspectives, she clarifies; rather they give us access to perspectives: they are the precondition for having a perspective at all, and the gateway to trespassing into another’s perspective (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1690).

 

VI The problem with perspective-shifting

Moods really come into play in art, according to Schmetkamp (2017: 1692), in two respects. The first, interestingly, is that they ought to help us to understand a work of art. Concentrating on film, Schmetkamp (2017: 1692) argues that since a film thematises a mood, correctly apprehending that mood is central to understanding the film. This strikes me as immediately problematic, for the same reason Slaby (2014: 256) is uneasy about trying to understand other people empathetically. Schmetkamp has snuck in the idea that moods are objects, pre-packaged and ready to be delivered up to our cognitive faculties.

Secondly, Schmetkamp (2017: 1685; 1692) argues that moods are important in art because they acquaint us with the perspective of another. Specifically, they enclose us in that perspective, inviting a confrontation between that perspective and our own. A film allows us to temporarily shift our perspective–‘without being totally absorbed’–and to potentially change our own perspective accordingly (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1691; 1693-4). It would not be much of a stretch to say this sounds like another form of empathy in which we try to inhabit the mood rather than the emotions of another person.

A non-trivial problem with this proposed shift in perspectives is that, as Goldie (2011: 302) makes clear, there are two ways we might try to do it. We might imagine ourselves in the other’s position–Goldie (2011: 302) calls this ‘in-his-shoes perspective-shifting,’ in which we draw a firm boundary between the self and the other (Coplan, 2011: 5)–or we might imagine ourselves as the other. The former would seem to miss the point of empathy, of Einfühlung or ‘feeling-into’ another, ignoring the situation as it applies to them (Slaby, 2014: 250). If you hate cycling up cobbled hills in the height of summer, imagining yourself in my position will not result in the same jubilant glee at the prospect of doing so. But imagining that you are me and all my confounding perplexities is no mean feat, and not only because you lack my background experiences, quirks of character, inexplicable love for the hills and other irrationalities (Goldie, 2011: 309; Slaby, 2014: 252-3). And not only because you would have to artificially objectify these background influences and bring them into the foreground to perform such a feat of empathy (Slaby, 2014: 252). Worse: you would deny my moment-by-moment authorship of my perspective–you would usurp my agency (Goldie, 2011: 315; Slaby, 2014: 252). My perspective is not a thing to be entered into, because as soon as you trespass upon it, you begin to author it.

 

VII Co-authorship

When we confront a painting by von Kaufmann, then, taking it to be an extension of his perspective, there is always an element of authorship from our side. Granted, it is not the same kind of authorship as he performs when he physically wrestles with the surface of the picture. Von Kaufmann posits himself in the world as he lays down paint, and the moods that swell up in his paintings originate in his own mooded opening onto the world itself. He repeatedly encounters the world as ominous, treacherous, doubt-riddled, dizzying, but also irresistibly beautiful in its relentless and indifferent onward surge. The curve of a shark’s nose slices onwards with the same elegant and ruthless force of life itself. As a well-dressed headless man leaps from a building, von Kaufmann’s undirected mood materialises in a precarious viewpoint, in the contrast between the clean angle of the building and the trembling texture of the fragile figure, in the unresolved edges and muted purples.

But von Kaufmann is not claiming authorship from our side, nor trying to persuade us to adopt his doubt, nor to revise our own perspective in the wake of a perspectival showdown. Rather sagaciously, von Kaufmann (via personal communication, December 2017) explicitly explains that he wants to give us just enough narrative substance that we feel we have a stake in each painting, that we are compelled to pick up and continue the story, for those stories are another way of making sense of the world (a sentiment echoed by Krueger (2011: 645), and a topic for another time). The magic happens when we find that something in this plainly laid out perspective already aligns with something of our own. It resonates with us precisely because of its familiarity, as though it were an expression of our own doubts. That is to say: we are not confronting some alternative view, but meeting with von Kaufmann on some common ground.

The painting reflects a shared space: the plane of the picture opens into an active field. As viewers, we are invited to author something else. We are prompted, at a common affective juncture, to continue to build our own perspective around this powerful embodied expression bestowed upon us Iike a gift. Our own background and idiosyncrasies and variable moods latch onto the ponderous mood, the anxiety, the bewilderment, but the stories that we weave are our own.

The shared space of a painting evidently lacks the reciprocation of a face-to-face encounter, and only loosely takes inspiration from Krueger’s (2011: 643-4) ‘we-space.’ The interaction cannot possibly happen in the same dynamic way that he argues for, for indeed there is no interaction between agents (Krueger, 2011: 646). Instead, each agent interacts with the painting. But what is crucial is that both painter and viewer remain agents; each understands that the other affectively engages with the painting and finds compelling common ground in that thin layer of paint because of the background-driven, future-oriented authorship of each party, however differently their actions might manifest.

 

VIII

A painting invites not a shift in perspective, but active authorship in an affective space that is live for both painter and viewer. The perspectives of the two necessarily differ, but sometimes there is enough overlap to forge a strong connection between the two, allowing each agent to author a different perspective from this common ground. Rather than trying to inhabit the painter’s perspective or to cognitively understand a painting as if its affective power lay merely in the uncovering of discrete packets of affective information, stressing the future-oriented agency of active parties physically immersed in an ever-unfolding world gives us a richer way forward in binding moods and art.

 

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Organisms of paint

State of the Art (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

‘It is impossible,’ says Merleau-Ponty (2012 [1945]: 221), ‘to paint about painting.’ He contrasts painting with the self-reflexivity of speech which can turn in on itself infinitely. And yet Ruprecht von Kaufmann, in his impressive retrospective exhibition in Erfurt, Germany, boldly offers us a kind of modern altarpiece, ‘State of the Art,’ which seems to be precisely a painterly contemplation on what painting is and where it is going. The panels seem to unfold like an altarpiece in an old German church, but in fact they are flat against the wall: the perspective is built into their skewed frames and continues in the lines of the pictures. From the outset the painting toys with our perception and toys with our smug art historical expectations. It raises a physical challenge to our interminable discussions about painting; for language proves, after all, ‘equally uncommunicative of anything other than itself’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 219).

The left wing houses a blazing piano whose narrow side is painted in rough, grainy, horizontal slashes that are cut sharply into a perfect vertical line–a painterly impossibility, unless one makes use of some non-traditional tool, like a stencil. Where the paint meets this stencil it rises to a proud precipice, defiantly thick. The piano seems wedged behind a smoky bar, but the long, thin counter proves to be a hovering canoe, whose subtle modulations of colour would also be impossible to paint save for the long and carefully prepared hooked curve of a stencil that determines its border. Its edges are licked pink, flaming between the sedate purple and indifferent white, giving them a diffuse glow even while they wrap around sharp edges.

State of the art (detail) (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

In the boat is a sorry looking figure. His painting-arms–for they end in brushes–hang limp and useless. Beyond him, in the final panel, flat and hasty modernist scribbles recede impatiently around a corner. Von Kaufmann seems to be in a devastating limbo. His works lack the shrewd indifference or even scorn towards narrative expected of the contemporary painter. But perhaps his painting is, in a sense, ‘accidentally narrative,’ in the way Merleau-Ponty (2012: 174) argues that a poem is. Beneath the images conjured up by the words of a poem lies the poem’s real power: its pulsing, rhythmic incantation loosely caresses its story but it leads, he insists, ‘in the reader’s mind, a further existence which makes it a poem’ (2012: 174). The force of its delivery lingers in our minds, not the synopsis, and our memory of that electrifying encounter stays with us long after the plot is lost to us. ‘A novel, poem, picture or musical work,’ ventures Merleau-Ponty (2012: 175) ‘are individuals, that is, beings in which the expression is indistinguishable from the thing expressed.’

Etude (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Floating in this uncertainty, von Kaufmann puts on his painting-arms anyway. He brandishes them with the fury of the piano player in the small gouache study ‘Etude,’ who plays on relentlessly with quivering, bendy arms while the whole thing goes up in smoke. Behind the hovering, inert painter (who is about to be hit with a bucket of paint) hangs other equipment ready to be assumed: his ordinary hands, more brushes, and a cluster of gracefully hooked shapes. It takes me a minute, but then I recognise them: some stencils hang from the wall with a languid drape, curling with the glamour of Nouvelle Vague cigarettes, seductive as a Jugendstil arc across any reputable Viennese Kaffeehaus door. The painter might wearily pull on his brushes, but he might also adapt–

Flucht (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Suddenly the stencils are everywhere. What would be discarded is offered triumphantly to our view, laid at the altar of painting. I see their crisp, cool results in the slick noses of sharks and I see their untiring reiteration of geometric patterns. But I also see them painfully and meticulously describing complex floor tiles in exaggerated perspectives, and I see them as sensually abstracted flat shapes. Von Kaufmann knows their rhythms intimately, he sees them scattered about the landscape of his studio, he eyes them as he dutifully attends to emails and escapes, momentarily, into their undulating forms, flattening them, in his mind, into lusciously rolling shapes, before abandoning his emails to paint them so: abstractions of abstractions, main protagonists formed of discarded remnants, paintings devised out of the very tools of painting, and out of unconventional and disposable tools at that. Von Kaufmann slips into his painting-arms and paints–defiantly, belligerently, compellingly–about painting.

Perfektion (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

The inevitable final step is that the stencils break away from the pictures, wearing the residue of the paintings on their smooth skins as they stalk the gallery, looming as embodied thought. I stand, at last, face to face with the unearthly human forms of strangely graceful sculptures that von Kaufmann has fashioned from these remnants, breathing the same air that flows between their fanned rib cages. I cast a quick look about the gallery, shocked at being entrusted with this vivifying secret. But no one else seems to notice. They approach the sculptures–thoughtfully pieced together with astounding anatomical care, with graceful kinks offsetting ribs and pelvis, and swollen calves, with a sturdy turn of the knee and the sure fastening of hamstrings to fibula–with predictable detachment, accustomed to greeting clusters of garbage in galleries. They fail to grasp that all are one: that, intoxicated with the act of creation, possessed by the same sick obsession with galvanism as Mary Shelley, von Kaufmann has animated the very tools of expression, granting them their existence as beings, as individuals.

Tumble (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

But the studio remains haunted with doubts and other tiny evils. ‘The Atelier’ towers as a false diptych. It is light and grand and littered with deceptions: benign decapitations, casual self-cannibalism, banal skulls that make up the satin ripple of the wallpaper. But most arresting is the break between the panels. It is not at the dramatic pictorial division, where the studio is propped up like a film-set. This rift between red and white trails off into a wash of strokes that reveal the painterly artifice that it is, while the real division shatters the glass of the mirror. Von Kaufmann, with the head of a rabbit, sits stiff and paralysed. His wife is sturdy and solid and human, uncovered and unshakable, sensible in her house shoes, a woman really seen, something sure among the sham. Her earthiness is grounding. She is a delicate balance between flesh and drapery, like the melting woman of ‘Take off your skin,’ whose legs, painted with ribbon-like delicacy, seem to curl endlessly in on themselves like Möbius strips.

The studio, 8 years of my life as Mr Lampe (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Sometimes this firm but fluid drawing softens into something more loose and flat, like the legs in ‘In the house,’ a five-panel painting that traverses some intensely emotional territory across its breadth. These legs revert to gentle outlines with the loving wobble of a Klimt leg, rounded out by two or three subtle tones laid crudely next to one another. A slumped figure is composed entirely of looping outlines filled in banana-yellow, garish against the subdued purples, as if a caricature of himself, of his own maddening powerlessness, shut off from the turmoil behind the door. These softened human imprints constantly vie with the sharpness of stencils and with the exacting slopes of edges of rooms and stairways, whose disconcerting perspective refracts across breaks in the panels. The low-slung moon, thick and pocked with holes through horizontal waves, gleams artificially against a scraped violet-blue sky, cut out by a perfectly circular stencil. The bed escapes this technical tension; its soft ripples wrap expertly around a solid form with a pleasing virtuosity, its pearlescent tones are hushed and close and its strokes are swift and free.

In the House (detail) (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Perhaps the clash between human and tool is most violent in the long series of remembered heads, the ‘Zuschauer’ (‘spectators’). Von Kaufmann seems intent on finding an elegant summary of each person, an understated string of loving lines to cup a face and distill its delightful individuality. But the painting bites back. Von Kaufmann goads it out of submission, gouging its lino surface instead of gently smoothing paint across it, slicing it and swapping its parts around, or overloading it with chunks of paint. Each eruption of paint latches onto something of the painted spectator, who willingly parades themself as they desire to be seen. But each presentation is met with a judgement, and the paint betrays that judgement. Full and dewy lips are rendered in bleeding, streaky paint. Large glasses alluding to intellect perch upon an aloof face, and von Kaufmann carves them in deep, hollow circles. A proud girl with a lovely tilt of chin and charming cheekbones is all but erased by a flat slab of gold paint, and von Kaufmann seems to sneer at her bland anonymity behind her polish, before piling a rough blob of the glitzy substance in the middle of her vacant face. Whether they seem to gaze dreamily at a starry sky, or stew knowingly in their sagging skin, or wear their bright lapels proudly, or leer from gaudy Hawaiian shirts, von Kaufmann teases them with the cruel painterly pleasure he takes in their lopsided ears, their bulbous noses, the undersides of their copious chins as they raise their heads and prattle on endlessly. And he never lets them stare him down: their evasive eyes softly dissolve like sugar sunken into coffee, nothing more than smoky circles in their sockets.

Zuschauer (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

The spectators seem to suffer a painterly fate akin to Deleuze’s (2003: 98; 99) ‘diagram’–the controlled chaos that he attributes to the smeared faces painted by Francis Bacon, the part of the painting freed from intention and left to the harsh irreverence of the hand. Indeed, the stencils permit exactly that–they define a limit within which von Kaufmann can enact a mindless physical fury at odds with the rest of the painting process, that would otherwise spill destructively into other regions and swallow up the picture. But von Kaufmann has found more than a clever tool in his stencils, for his rough patches, rather than wreaking disaster on a painting, seem rough in a directly human response to innovations and developments in painting. A stencil could, in the hands of another, be a crutch, an assistant to a lazy painter. Von Kaufmann defies the stencil and pushes its possibilities, he uses it not for ease and perfection but rather to reveal what paint is, its viscosity and willfulness, and to show us how inescapably human painting is. Every frenzied texture that wrestles through a stencil is a declaration about painting. Von Kaufmann does not carelessly disrupt his paintings. Rather, he thrashes painting to life, extracting every last drop of expression from every last part of it–even from the tools and the substrate–awakening it into a being, into an organism of paint.

Whatever von Kaufmann’s private doubts about painting may be, he keeps probing perception, probing existence itself, until the paintings assume their own existence, silently stewing and imposing their alternatives on us. His work always clings to a story, certainly, and prods us to discover one. But in so many ways they are paintings about painting, thought through the act of painting itself; the presence they give to these thoughts is far more deep and honest than this inadequate tribute of words. Every time von Kaufmann puts on his painting arms, he inhabits painting even as it inhabits him, he fuses seamlessly with his tools like bike and rider and surges on relentlessly, and we can no longer say where the brush ends and he begins.

Prometheus (c) Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003 [1981]. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. London: Continuum.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Die Evakuierung des Himmels‘ runs until 02 April 2018 at Kunsthalle Erfurt, Germany. Do it!

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Le néant

‘Nothingness,’ writes Sartre (1998 [1943]: 21) ominously, ‘lies coiled in the heart of being–like a worm.’ His pessimism is pervasive, but mundane. His obsession with nothingness brings us from the edge of the howling abyss to the yawning emptiness of our wallets, but the view from precipice–or that from the lively but friendless café–permits him to trace deep undercurrents through the nature of our being (1998: 6; 9-10; 30). The holes–the gaps–the refusals–the unremarked slipping by of opportunities–can certainly cause us to well up with existential dread. But they also reveal the immense power we can have over our lives, and the immense responsibility we have for the way we live them. For Sartre, this responsibility is a radical freedom so intoxicating and so burdensome it can make us sick; it is also inextricably bound up with even the tiniest eruptions of nothingness that surface in the world.

Copies after Meštrovic and Mihanovic

For we are the originators of nothingness, Sartre (1998: 8; 24) argues; every nothingness lives in our own minds as a sheer fabrication, a mere interpretation of events. Destruction is but a perspective: a city is only destroyed if we view it as such; in purely physical terms its components are merely rearranged. ‘There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else’ (Sartre, 1998: 8). The world surges on like a ruthless, rolling ocean, re-adjusting its parts without regard for the petty values we place on certain arrangements. The very concept of negation comes from the thwarted sense of importance we have arbitrarily placed on something.

Perhaps he first glimpsed this thread in Husserl. In posing a question, says Sartre (1998: 4-5; 23), we thrust a negative element into the world. Inserting nothingness into the world, we make ‘the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things’ (Sartre, 1998: 23). When we ask, we admit space for the answer to be ‘no.’ As Husserl (1973 [1948]) puts it, we invite doubt into the world, we acknowledge that things are not unfolding mechanistically, we entertain other futures. Doubt is thus the flip side of possibility. For something to be possible–not definite–it must be able to waver. It could come off or it might not. Doubt, which seems to undermine our plans and our sense of self, in fact gives the world its luxurious openness. Uncertainty looms ahead of us like a door left ajar, it gives us a foothold, it shows the world to be full of cracks into which we can force ourselves and impose our will, through which we can inflict change on the world, redirect its course.

And so Husserl (1972: 87) sees the world as a kaleidoscopic churning of possibilities, of open questions, of expectations, trembling at its edges. As we stalk those edges with trepidation, they shift and reorient themselves according to our every move. The structure of the world, asserts Husserl (1972: 82-83; 1999 [1950]: 45), against the scientific spirit, is horizonal; its horizons are ever just at the edge of our sight, but ever rolling away from it. The view is different from wherever we stand: but from whichever position it remains petulantly ambiguous (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 79, 80; 196).

We only discover this structure, says Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 74-75), when things break down. When our equipment falters and shocks us out of our practical unity with them, when our reflective, thinking attention is drawn to their heavy uselessness and suddenly obvious separateness from our own bodies. Or when we discover them not there–the unfortunate lightness of our wallets–we are cast into the solemn and terrible mood that is Angst. The small non-beings bring us face to face with the great nothingness, face to face with ourselves. Where we are ordinarily lost in our doings and projects, merged with the world in practical little acts, our sudden reflective detachment from the world presents us with the unimportance of our little schemes and ushers in a sickening sense of futility. Stripped of its practical significance, the world is bare before us, devoid of meaning, robbed of value (Heidegger, 1993: 185-187).

But it is Sartre who remains gravely optimistic. This Angst is too all-encompassing; it makes the world too precarious, a world which in any case has no meaning. Negation greets us in some form at every turn, and it is not so earth-shattering as Heidegger would have it. The small nothingnesses whisper to us sweetly in their languid triviality, but even in their banality they can give us sharp moments of insight to our own freedom.

These insights cause us anguish, but it is anguish that urges us from the wavering edge of indecision. Anguish is an agony that eats us from the inside. Fear stalks us from outside, when we feel ourselves threatened or cornered, at the mercy of fate. Fear swells in us at the edge of the cliff, as we eye the loose gravel and step timidly on the uneven ground. But fear becomes anguish when the sinister thought enters our mind that we could cast ourselves over the edge (Sartre, 1998: 29). That the car keeps to its steady course on the endless highway because of the gentle guidance of our calm hands, but that a violent, decisive movement would wrench us into the oncoming truck. In that moment, we see that all our impulses are alike, that all are equally in our hands, that we are not cast about at the whim of chance but are shaping our future with every act. That every time we fail to choose (another tiny negation), every time we quietly watch an opportunity politely fade away, we have made as firm a choice as had we grasped it.

Even these small, offhand acts, lighting a cigarette, raising a coffee to our lips, are the very things that inject value into the world, insists Sartre (1992: 36-38). In taking up this pen, this brush, I affirm that writing, painting, matter to me, ‘without justification and without excuse’ (Sartre, 1992: 39). In painting this picture I affirm myself, I force myself onto the world as a painter, I construct my identity, I project my future, I declare that ‘I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it’ (Sartre, 1998: 32). I make small steps toward that future, laying little seeds of meaning in the world like a trail of shiny coins. I solemnly make appointments with myself in the future, with anguish lurking at my back, agonising at the thought that I might not meet myself there (Sartre, 1998: 36).

Sartre digs up nothingness where others would rather not, but it is because he has seen that possibility implies negation. And where there is possibility one can exert one’s freedom. We must choose at every juncture, continually remake ourselves, examine ourselves at every step, question ourselves, even doubt ourselves (Sartre, 1998: 35). That we might fail is the very condition of possibility: that something is at stake affirms that something matters to us, that we have imposed a pocket of meaning in the world. With anguish hounding us we must seize the burden of responsibility. ‘Only those who can truly give themselves a burden are free.’ (Heidegger, 1995 [1983]: §38).

Heidegger, Martin. 1995 [1983]. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Heidegger, Martin. 1993 [1927]. Sein und Zeit. 19. edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1999 [1950]. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973 [1948]. Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970 [1954]. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans: David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1998 [1943]. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge.

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