The Round Dance of the Muses. A conversation with Paolo Fabbri

Da: Jean Baudrillard, Paolo Fabbri e Joseph Kosuth, Thinking Art. The Game of Rules, a cura di Corrado Sinigaglia e Antonio Somaini, A&M Bookstore – Trivioquadrivio, Milano, 2000.

Commenting a few years back on Greimas’s text De l’imperfection, you wrote: ‘The essential characteristic of a work is that it has been made for someone; even if aesthetics tries to be ludic and disinterested, the manipulation of the game is, for the reader, a getting caught up in the rules that ‘make him play the game’… The artistic game is begun by the reader; he transmutes its identity, including it in his reality and defining as reality everything which has been thus transmuted.
Does the artistic experience therefore have the character of an initiation, where it is the work that dictates the rules of the game? In order for the subject to get ‘caught up’ , aren’t further conditions necessary, whether subjective or historical?

Before taking on the question of the use made of the work, of whether or not the reader gets caught up in the rules – a question to which I think we will be continually obliged to return – I would like, first of all, to pause over some points implicit in the question, so as to avoid any possible misunderstandings. First of all, the mention of rules: I am not sure, in fact, that the metaphor of the rule is a good one, since a transformation of the rules generally changes the type of play. Let’s think of the game of chess, to which linguists have frequently turned as a way of demonstrating linguistic practice: here is a closed system of rules, something that doesn’t apply to language. Nor to art, either, which is constantly evolving. This is why, more than of rules, I would speak of maxims in Kant’s sense of the term; i.e., of concurrent or, more precisely, co-requisite indications of necessity. If the rule is that without which there is no game, the maxim is a sort of unregulated norm which nevertheless involves the rule. One must keep silent while playing chess; but if one speaks, the game doesn’t change! One should distinguish between rules, maxims, and canons; for example, it is a canon that a tragedy should possess unity of time, playing itself out with a day (although there are many tragedies that don’t respect this canon). Canons appear in conflicts, epigrams, pamphlets, etc. They are never to be found in the list of norms imposed from without, but they arise continuously along the conflict-ridden borders offered by a new movement, a new possibility. So far as the historical situation and the context are concerned, I don’t believe it possible to speak of the art object’s possessing an intrinsic value; for this reason, I think it necessary to analyse the relationship that the subject establishes with it. Still, in this case, too, rather than speaking of a context, I would speak of a co-text. The context is, in fact, everything: to read a work, we would have to know everything about the period in which its was made, the author’s life, those of the readers, etc.
So the problem is the pertinent selection of the context, the decision as to the viewpoint from which this selection ought to be made. As for me, I opt for the textual viewpoint.
If we want to get through the work right away and we plunge into the whole of the possible context for making it meaningful, we will manage to do it, but with an infinite degree of arbitrariness. On the other hand, we can also begin with the work’s inner structure, when it has one. For example, there are works that are full of quotations.
Let’s think of post-modernism: works of this kind display on the outside the pertinent criteria for reading them, thus showing their own co-text. Naturally, they can do this in various ways: jokingly, ironically, parodically, or even just because the co-text is not pertinent. Nevertheless, the indication is present. And even where it is not explicit, it can offer guidance for a selection of those co-texts that will make the text meaningful.

To stick with Greimas, in his analysis of the so-called ‘aesthetic grasp’ he underlines the aspect of epiphany which, he says, is set off by a sort of fragmentation of ordinary perception, by experiences that break with and deviate from the usual way of relating to things, However, one gets the impression that Greimas’s way of conceiving of artistic creation or aesthetic experience is typically modern, and is to be encountered in much early-twentieth-century literature…

I agree. Greimas is a modernist. In post-modern terminology, the idea of the epiphany wouldn’t make any sense. But what has always interested me in Greimas is the emphasis placed upon the moments of deregulation (it is clear that here the idea of disorder in every sense, Rimbaud-style, is implicit) and on the reorganisation of moments of attention imposed by every aesthetic relationship. The idea of epiphany, which is part of our culture from Joyce to Eliot, etc., indicates, in a sense, a sort of lightning short-circuit between moments of deregulation and reregulation of the perceived object, of the subject, of the dimension of time; the moment of epiphany is a strange organisation of time which gives the latter a precise definition in the present, making the present atemporal and turning duration into a point, etc. The same goes for space: think of the pages Greimas devotes to Tournier and the analysis of the drop of water, when he speaks of a microscopic simulation and an inversion of time that takes place in space, or of the withdrawal of Palomar’s gaze in Calvino…

Just this very last example seems to offer a paradigm of the aesthetic – or, to use Greimas’s term, ‘aesthesic’ – grasp. This grasp is said to function as a suspension capable of leading to a sort of sublimation. Nonetheless, we may wonder whether this is enough to explain the event of art itself, to answer the basic question that an author like Goodman raises when, in Ways of worldmaking, he asks: ‘When is art?’

With Goodman there occurs a decisive displacement of the gaze. And not just because, when one no longer poses the question in terms of ‘what is art?’, but rather in terms of ‘when is art?’, there comes to the foreground the nature of the objects we call artistic, of their differences and translatability. The appeal to art’s symbolic function clearly shows that one must not take into consideration only that group of things traditionally called art. Were that so, we would have no symbolic criterion, but only a list of objects that enter and leave art history. To be sure, the criteria, the ‘symptoms of the aesthetic’ indicated by Goodman, are not so clear. As for me, I would cautiously propose another one: poetic-ness, using this term in a very broad sense. As a traditionalist, I have great difficulty in imagining a purely stochastic art, and I feel the need to think of a form of density of relationships brought on by discrete choices. The chaotic totality of forces doesn’t interest me unless there is a formal filter that allows the substances of the world to burst through – whether or not by force. The density Goodman speaks of thus becomes a density of forms that imposes on the chaotic world the forces which in a certain sense define it. If there isn’t a level of consistency created by form in the chaotic world of forces, one recognises no value in the world. This is why pure indeterminacy, praise for the random and the indefinite, does not move me. As for Greimas, there is no doubt that in his analysis a third moment is lacking, one regarding the difference between the aesthesic and the artistic relationship with the object. By an artistic relationship, I mean a relationship in which a second operation is carried out: that of attributing to a subject (whatever it may be, whether God, Nature, or any particular artist) an intention – not an intentionality – which may correspond to the will of the subject or which may be reconstructed in terms of an intention. This is the level of production of the object. Now, the aesthesic relationship with the object does not, in itself, imply an artistic relationship, and even when I speak of a subject, I am not alluding only to an individual; it may very well be a collective subject, or else an empty subject such as nothingness, meaninglessness, chance, etc. What counts is that we are talking about a principle of action, of a ‘making’ which it is possible to reconstruct in the aesthetic relationship and which leaves some sort of traces in the object. This is why we need an ontology of artistic objects and an analysis of the values of exemplarity constructed by the producing subject or reconstructed by the eventual receptor (or perhaps receiver?). For example, we may ask ourselves what happens when we enter a museum for the second time, after the transformation, the first time, of the object of use into an attentional object. Does the object become the object of a new attention, of a rethinking capable of reconstructing perception and feeling? Perhaps; but suddenly attention shifts to the artistic intention. And every time one returns to the museum, we are struck by this intention – to the point where we no longer even need the object. It loses importance, becoming a pretext obliging us to think of the text. It might be objected that in this way one ends up positioning oneself on the side of the receiving subject, that the establishment first of the aesthesic and then of the artistic relationship concerns only the viewpoint of the user-consumer. But this is my point of view, as one who is not a producer of art and who seeks to think philosophically about it. Nonetheless, such a viewpoint is not only not in conflict with that of the artist, but actually co-implicates the artist’s point of view, since the artist also has non-creative aesthesic perceptions and is at once producer and receptor of his own work, in an ongoing process of reelaboration. All pentimenti are constructions of this kind.

Faced with the multiplicity and variety of forms of art, the problem would therefore regard not so much the possiblility of a definition able to embrace all of them, but rather the possibility of their translatability, Besides, the whole experience of the avant-gardes shows itself to be disrespectful of differences, revealing a character that might be called syncretic…

The translatability of the arts certainly represents one of the fundamental, inescapable questions if we want to think about art. Nonetheless, it is possible only if we start from the standpoint of forms and not from that of substances; only if we recognise that the semantic structure, the form of language’s content, reflects the categories of the world’s expressive form. We need only look about us to see how the world and the semantics of language reveal the same expressive forms: static-dynamic, singular-plural, masculine-feminine, principal-subordinate, etc. Language contains the world, so to speak; and it contains it in the form of form. The expressive categories of the world are themselves formed; this does not mean that they are not transformable or deformable, nor that form should be understood in a formal sense, as the opposite of content. On the contrary, I would think of a form of expression and a form of content. Then there is an expressive substance and a substance of content. And the content of the language is not unrelated to the world, but is made up of the same categories. What is more, the expressive substance has to do with the body. Language is not logical categorisation, but breath, body, sound. Nothing is more corporeal than language. It is thus a question of recognising the mutual involvement between form and substance on the one hand and the organisation of contents, their formed aspect, on the other. And this is, in my opinion, one of the ways to escape from the opposition which we have inherited and which sees the sign on the one hand and the real on the other…

Now, if translation is possible only on the basis of a grammar which the arts somehow have in common with the world, is it the aesthetic dimension that allows a sort of return to the pre-categorial state, to the primordial terrain of experience? In other words, are translations conditions of the discovery of an underlying pre-categoriality? Or is the latter the condition for the functioning of translation?

On this issue, I openly side with artistic rather than philosophical practice. A philosopher would have no doubts: Merleau-Ponty would say, for example, that it is pre-categoriality which allows us to think of translatability. As for me, I would tend to say that this pre-categoriality has been postulated, but is also constructed by the sum total of translation activities among artistic practices. To use an image, they are the Muses performing a round dance. Detienne, in Les maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque, has delineated a double classification of the Muses which is of great interest. The Muses have not always been nine.
The archaic classification comprised three of them: Melete, Mneme, and Aoede. Melete was the discipline of apprenticeship for the profession of aedo or bard: concentrate intently, practise, play, draw, rehearse, meditate. Mneme was the prerequisite for memory. Aoede was the product, the finished song. The aedo is the one who succeeds in producing the aoido, the song. The Muses did not represent different types of substance, but the discipline, the virtual competence, and the final realisation. Cicero, to whom we owe the reconstruction of the Greek world, lists four Muses: Arche, the beginning, the origin; Melete; Aoede; and the last, Telxinoe, who was the seduction that the spirit exercised over others (the missing Muse here was Mneme.) In the Greek classification, it was probably supposed that it was enough to have discipline and memory and to have produced a finished song. But Cicero was already beginning to worry: he needed a Muse specifically for the seduction worked upon others. I think that these same four Muses, who constitute a way of opening to the world, must underly all the different forms of artistic practice – painting, cinema, sculpture, music, performance art, etc. Arche ever since we began to speak; Melete when practice is needed; Aeode, the text as such; Telxinoe, seduction; and to these I would add Mneme, or the way in which we shape our memories.
I very much prefer these Muses to those waitresses of Apollo’s…

If these dre the prerequisites for every possible translation, what are the levels in artistic practice which permit maximum translatability!

Obviously, the non-verbal and the image. An image is a complex utterance that cannot be compared with a word, unless one believes that a word is a complex utterance. Think, for example, of a definition of ‘respect’: a recognition of the value that leads one person to assign to another admiration accompanied by a freely assumed comportment of restraint and dignity. If we reduce the word from its meaning to its structure of definition, then things change. Second point: if we take a pictorial statement – let’s think of a painting, just to help ourselves, because certainly art is not alone in this – and we compare it with certain grammatical structures, we come up with nothing of interest. If, on the other hand, we consider a type of organisation of language – think of the organisation of poetry by means of rhyme, assonance, parallelisms, inversions, etc. – the comparison becomes possible, and concerns certain specific levels of the organisation of discourse (not the grammatical-lexical one) and certain kinds of ‘textual’ organisation or art. It’s what Boulez does when he looks at Klee and compares his work, for example, with Ravel’s music: he does not place image and sound in a naïve relationship. Besides, there is no grammar, no lexicon of the image in the proper sense of the term. Instead, there are comparisons between textual configurations. An example. It is often said that the image is simultaneous (even if not all of them are), while language is linear: this is said to be the source of their incompatibility. In reality, even static images have a mode of internal organisation which can simulate time; this means that an image can offer a temporalisation that might not, perhaps, be immediately perceived. But there is more: language is probably simultaneous. Let’s think of a rhyme, of an assonance: the first line of a rhymed poem does not rhyme with anything. One has to wait quite a while for the rhyme to arrive; but when it is read, it is read simultaneously with the first line. The rhyme produces the effect of a return; it creates simultaneity. There is no better way than repetition to overcome the irreversibility of time.

So translatability is not something that exists a priori. Instead, every discipline must work within itself to reach those levels which make it possible, This brings us to the problems connected with the art object…

As for the object, I would speak of the attentional object, in Goodman’s sense. What does this mean? There can be an individual or collective perception of the artistic object; and in any case, it is not simply a matter of a subject faced with a painting, a work, etc. The aesthetic relationship should be understood as a dimension of a complex act which is at once perceptive, cognitive and, above all, emotional. To use Deleuze’s terms: percept, concept, affect. The act that establishes the aesthesic relationship may transform the object or establish certain perceptive, emotional, or cognitive traits which otherwise would remain ungrasped. Take, for example, the concept of the objet trouvé, of the ready-made. If you take a bicycle wheel and carry it into a museum, suddenly its perfect circularity and star-like structure, which usually go unobserved, become pertinent. Nothing stops one from turning the bicycle upside down and changing the perception of it, as Duchamp did. If we start it spinning, it suddenly takes on value. For this reason, it makes no sense to say that he limited himself to taking an object; behind Duchamp’s action lies the history of the difficulties of the representation of movement, there is Velazquez. In addition, Duchamp signed that wheel with an ironic pseudonym, and wrote something on it. Through his practice of inscription, support, and signature, he brought upon the object an attentional selection of certain properties that I would call ‘exemplary’.

But what io you mean by this ‘exemplarity’?

Think of Guardi’s grey lagoon. It possesses the quality of being grey. However, this is not an aesthesic perception; if anything, it is the art historian who says that the lagoon is grey. The aesthesic perception is that Guardi has created an object in which greyness has become exemplarily attentional. To be sure, it is a property of the work; but a wall is grey, too. The aesthesic operation is the act by which the artist – or, it may be, the receptor -carries out an operation of exemplary attribution that selects certain aspects of the work which may be colour, configuration, a face, etc. This operation has the character of a genuine discovery, in some ways analogous to one in science or philosophy. In our case, it is not the text which has grey for its reference; if anything, it is greyness which, as an attentional selection, has the text as its reference. The latter thus becomes the realisation of an exemplarity that confers upon it a form of orientation. The art object indicates, and at times forces upon the viewer, the way in which it wants to be looked at. To look at the art object means to look at the series of maxims, of implied, stated, and imposed rules (think of reverse perspective or vanishing point perspective, etc.) that tell the user how he must look at the object. From this standpoint every work, like every text, is a proposal: it presupposes what in semiotics is called a contract of enunciation. Just as in a text there is a propositional structure, in an art object there is light, a reflexion, a colouristic and an eidetic-configurative dimension, an organisation of space, a structuring of rhythm, and so on. If, on the one hand, these seem properties of the object, from another they seem to be indications for reading it. Let’s think of Renaissance painting, which displays a series of strategies, some of them explicit, figurative (we often find characters who are pointing with a finger while addressing themselves to someone who is not inside the picture, but potentially in front of it); others which are spatial (perspective, for example, which, as Schapiro’s analyses in Floris and Pictures well show, is, in fact, nothing but an enunciative contract, since it proposes a way of looking); and yet other, chromatic ones that function as invitations to focus the attention. There is more: the work may contain a simulacrum of the emotions that one ought to feel while looking at it, for example through an identification with the emotions of a figure who, from within the picture, looks at the indicated scene. We are faced with an emotional contract which is proposed to the viewer, the user of the work, in the hope that he, too, will view the scene in the same way. Obviously, this contract can also be refused; one may limit oneself to observing the scene with no emotional involvement. This does not mean that the work hasn’t made its offer, which might afterwards lead to an informational restructuring of art history. In any case, this is the point of departure from which we must pose the question of art’s truthfulness, as well as the rather banal one of its ethical responsibility. Every object proposes different contracts of truthfulness, which should be understood according to the categories to which they belong. It may happen that a highly conceptual object proposes no other emotional contract than that of surprise. It may also happen that it demands, in the final analysis, an utter cognitive indifference. Nonetheless, if the possibility of an ethical responsibility depends upon the proposal contained within the object, I believe that this responsibility is conceivable only if we accept the idea of an emotional contract, since a purely cognitive contract would not suffice.

Does the emotional dimension thus become the meeting point for the aesthesic, the conceptual and, above all, the ethical?

When we speak of desire, we are thinking of something that’s alive; when we speak of revenge, we are thinking of something deliberate, cold yet hot – of an intensity of coldness, etc, I have the impression that the perceptual dimension is one of the elements constituting the emotional dimension, and that a change in perception is therefore capable of producing a change in the emotional dimension, too, If aesthesia is among the components of the emotional dimension, the latter changes with changes in the aesthesic dimension, As for value, we must distinguish between value in the sense of differential elements between signs, value as defined by the object for which it can be exchanged and, lastly, the value given by the conjunction with the project of a subject, the relationship between a subject and an object. From this standpoint, the act of aesthesic focussing implies a conferring of value. What is more, but value is also that which is defined by the relationship with another subject, with the Other’s desire, The aesthesic act of perception that constitutes the object is an emotional, selective perception, and it is in function of one’s own desire that it presupposes a relationship with the Other. The question of value involves all these parameters, and there are values linked with an innovative act of perception, values constructed by the act of desiring, etc. There is no single act of imparting value; it is always in function of various types of strategies of value. Sometimes the artist who commutes possibilities, colouristic ones for instance, suddenly discovers that he has run across something deserving of having value attached to it, even though it was not constructed intentionally. Sometimes an artist can do this against another artist…

You touched earlier upon the possibility of a coincidence of intentions between the author and the user of the work, Can such acceptance be taken as a discriminating factor able to establish when it’s art and when it isn’t?

Let’s take the case of the Byzantine icon, which presupposes an absolute consensus on the fact that it doesn’t represent something real, but rather the essence of a transcendental being, This explains its reversed perpective structure. Unlike the normal kind, this perspective goes towards the observer; and the observer is really the observed, the vanishing point of the perspective. In a culture where there is a general consensus on the fact that one stands in front of the work in order to be observed, the identification is total; in Russia, extraordinary things must have occurred, and aesthesic perception must have been seriously disturbed, when icons were made for the first time with normal perspective, The same may be said for Greek vase painting, where the figures are seen from the side and only a very few of them are ‘looking at the camera’; what happened when, at a certain point, they all turned our way? In the history of art, contractually intense moments have frequently been followed by moments of perceptual rupture, caused, in part, by the potential users of the work, who start to read it in a different manner or to deny it their aesthesic acceptance, For this to occur, it is necessary that rules be broken or, rather, that new maxims be set forth, This is not all, For an intention to be established, once the rupture has been constituted as a proposal of new maxims, several other elements must intervene – dealers, museum directors, art historians and critics, governmental and cultural bureaucrats, etc, In a word, there must be a consensus. On the other hand, the difficulties connected with the social relationships of art can be understood only by beginning with the attentional recategorisation of which we spoke earlier. The art object can often be the pretext for a recategorisation in terms of emotions, passions, consciousness and unconsciousness, etc., bearing as much upon the artist’s subjectivity (for example, his suicide) as upon his relationship with the Other, whether the latter be the public or that Other who is the artist himself.

Don’t you think that a recategorisation of this kind is imposed today by new technologies, new writing practices that have radically modified the expressive medium and the nature of the art object?

I must confess that, in this regard, I have no good examples to offer. In the seventies, people were convinced of the complete clarity and transparency of programming activities, which were going to make it possible to understand the forms of reason. But what happened afterwards? We found ourselves faced with a surface of icons that could be played off against one another; one no longer thought in terms of the depth of a programme’s logical output, in terms of the prospects for artificial intelligence, but rather in terms of a surface created by a bricolage of images, where the type of sign is often a function of the viewer, giving rise to a ‘story’ with increasingly complex rules… I have the impression that it is not a matter of new artistic practices, but rather of new levels of aesthesia, of a new aesthetic approach in which, in certain regards, the story line disappears. Still, even on this point we must not dramatise matters by attaching too much importance to the idea that narration is always linear. It is enough to think of the structure of a fable with its refrains, where every fable follows another and, at any point in the fable, one may find many others. Often the motifs inscribed in a story are such that they can give rise, if extracted, to a new story; while if condensed, they can be inserted into other stories. I believe that hypertextuality offers these possibilities an immense freedom. More decisive than the idea of a creative art, for our sensibility, is the idea of a work that increasingly takes on the form of a proposal that the user can modify. Moreover, where the expressive substance disappears, there also disappears the pathos of creation, of matter.
All of this needs not necessarily be thought of in terms of a loss, an impoverishment. The digital image does not lead to the banality of the given copy. On the contrary, we arrive at a totality of extraordinarily perceptible differences, obtained through a deep exploration of the material, the transformation of the substance of the world, in an ongoing work of stabilisation that constrains the chaotic play of forms, colours, etc. within the walls of a square millimetre…

At any rate, all this makes the question of the diverse types of art objects and their ontological practice a very urgent one…

In this case, too, I would begin with a very simple distinction set forth by Goodman in Languages of Art concerning what he calls the problem of the immanence or transcendence of the work with regard to its object. If we start, as Goodman does, by examining the concept of the ‘fake’, we will immediately see that copying a sonnet by Leopardi and copying the Mona Lisa are not the same thing. This is because the two objects have a different ontological status. Leopardi’s sonnet can be copied by hand or by a machine, in different styles of writing and colours; several people may write out one line apiece. The object is undoubtedly different, but the subject is still the same, The work transcends its realisations. In the case of the Mona Lisa, this is not true: if you have a copy, you have a different thing. A copy, however excellent, is not the Mona Lisa. An analogous example may be drawn from music: however one reads him, Leopardi remains the same, while a musical score, even though it remains the same, is performed each time in a different way. (It may be performed by three instruments, by a single instrument, the sounds may be artificially manipulated, etc.) If we want the muses to dance their round dance, we are obliged to think as much of their translatability as of their diversity, which is, first and foremost, a diversity of ontological status. If we fully understand this, we cannot fail to see how certain things that we claim to be happening only today are, in reality, part of western culture. It is our mythology of originality that expects the Greeks to have made a single original in bronze, which the Romans afterwards copied. In reality, the Greeks were already making copies. What is that Venus with a column, copied in so many ways? A mental object, incarnated in all its realisations: in this case, the conceptual form is transcendent with respect to the objects, while this does not hold good for painting.
What to say of a score that has never been played? Is it a mental object? Certainly – even if it is only written and never heard. Didn’t the person who wrote it hear it? Perhaps; but only in a virtual manner. So one understands the importance of the distinction Goodman makes between autograph and allograph art. The autograph art par excellence is painting; but engraving is autograph, too, even if the objects are multiples. The same goes for performance – even if we may well ask ourselves, in the case of jazz, for instance – how we are to take a second performance. Perhaps, beyond the score that constitutes the pretext, something mental is already establishing itself in virtual terms.

In this sense, allography makes pertinent the question of whether art is not, at bottom, almost entirely conceptual; of whether, that is, it is not possible to find, in every artistic practice, something transcendent, a principle of recognisability that makes the work individual…

There is no doubt about it, even if this requires some clarification. There are works where the instructions are designed to stimulate, and others where execution is paramount. One cannot fail to take this difference into account. It is well known that stage directors are continuously obeying and disobeying the stage directions in the text. Does the work remain the same? Perhaps so; but why put the question in terms of the intatto operisi When we repeat dramatically, along with Walter Benjamin, that we are living in the epoch of technical reproducibility, I have the impression that people forget that this is nothing astonishing for art. As I have just said, the Greek bronzes were not ‘originals’ in the true sense. At bottom, all this drama is nothing but the fruit of the Romantic ideology of the author, the creator, an ideology for which the artistic act lies in Raphael’s unique brushstroke, his initial gesture… But in reality, art is far more complex, and not just because of the distinction between autograph and allograph art of which I spoke earlier. Let us take as an example sketches where the artist includes a series of written indications. We must take account of that bizarre moment in the history of art when annotations make their appearance. In the computer, contemporary art has finally found a place where annotations are, so to speak, obligatory. And it spells them out with satisfaction and sorrow – sorrow, because it is forced to do so, and satisfaction, because there is already a good theory of annotations. Then there are cases where there is only the creator. There are the cases of the preparation of sinopie, of written indications, etc. But there are also cases where there is notation pure and simple: ballet, the circus, etc. This is why we must not remain victims of the distinction between creator and interpreter. Rather, we must get beyond it and reflect on the different types of objects that reveal very subtle types of artistic practice. From this standpoint, we must ask ourselves whether reproduction really does kill the aura or whether, instead, technology is not capable of putting auras back in the places from which they have vanished. Think, for example, of certain rituals of Beuys, where all that is left to us are certain traces of reproductions. Is there any difference from sixteenth-century theatre, where there are no stage directions and only some eye-witness accounts remain to us? Instead of worrying about recordings, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether the photos or images of Beuys’s works don’t constitute the work itself, as participants in its event? This, too, would be nothing new: think of the music of long-gone periods when scores were not very detailed and only the principal instruments were written down. So every performance seems inexorably to reconstruct the event, which doesn’t exist until it is made real. Today, paradoxically, the only thing that has kept a minimum of originality is the reproduction, since it seems even more ‘original’ than those performances which, in the past, were based solely upon very imprecise indications…

One must distinguish between reproduction and the remake, where the original ceases to he the first, becoming instead a sort of transcendental form with regard to all its variants, each of which presents itself as a work…

Certainly, but with differing proposals and with changes in the attentional contract. Think, for example, of Nabokov’s Lolita, The story is identical; but Kubrick’s film begins with the murder which, in the novel, occurs at the end. In the film, the first part is in the third person, it’s objective, while after the murder it’s the murderer who recounts the story. While the novel is all in the first person, it’s an autobiographical story. Regarding the contract of enunciation, Kubrick proposes that one believe in the first scene as objective, something that really happens. In Nabokov’s case, everything is told from the protagonist’s viewpoint. Nonetheless, we feel that it’s the same Lolita. So the point is to understand when the subtle moment of transformation occurs. Contemporary art has worked on nothing else: it is enough to add a moustache or retouch a single point. There is a great deal of irony in all this; contemporary art practises irony in a subtle way. In this case, too, however, one must proceed with greater caution. There are works of art within which real, authentic paintings are inscribed, while in others the paintings are copied. Others are rich in quotations that are implied, indirect, if not downright hidden, but which may be reconstructed nonetheless. Lastly, certain quotations may be introduced by the user, etc., without being present in the work. The subtle typology of effects is one of the great pleasures of aesthesia. In the reconstruction of textual multiplicity there is, in fact, a pleasure that is not just cognitive.

Perhaps the problem of identity becomes even more ‘exemplary’ when it is the work itself that brings onstage the drama of its own decay and mortality, Think, for example, of the works of an artist such as Titus Carmel…

I have always admired the subtlety of Titus-Carmel’s work. His is a discourse on the replica, on simulation, substance, the relationship between the real and the sign, on the fact that reality doesn’t last and is destined to rot.
Here art reveals, through and through, its character as a Gedankenexperiment, an experiment in thought having the nature of a parable. Art thinks in parables, and therefore through argumentation. For mysterious reasons, the rhetoric of our culture has distinguished between argumentation and the syllogism on the one hand, and metaphors and tropes on the other. Now, it is undeniable that metaphor contains values that are referential, argued, and that it possesses qualities of discovery; it is not merely decorative, but constituent, possessing cognitive value. Philosophy has always said so. What it has not said, however, is that metaphor and argumentation are reversible, in the sense that it is not only science that thinks and art that represents. Rather, there are thinking figures, charged with speculative power, just as there are arguments that often contain images and metaphors, questions of rhythm and symmetry. Much contemporary art – but not only contemporary – must be considered a true conceptual practice. Not in order to redeem it, but because it thinks. If anything, it is we who do not understand how it thinks, who have to translate its thought.

But if such a translation requires that we think of the relationship between art and philosophy not in the terms set forth by traditional aesthetics, which often regards art as a category whose contents are known, doesn’t the semiotic approach you propose turn out to be one-sided, reducing the work of art, and more generally the text, to the dimension of textum, thus losing, among other things; its dimension as testis or witness?

Yes, this is one of my limitations, the sign of my background. The testis does not interest me as the subject of the enunciation, but as something enounced within the text itself. And I believe that the contribution of semiotic practice can be that of helping to think of how textuality bears inscribed within itself proposals of witness – the textum as the place where the testis is inscribed. This is because, by insisting on the fact that it is art that thinks of and formulates the theoretical hypotheses of which it is capable, I am saying that the majority of aesthetic contracts are, in some way, proposed by the text itself; and I want to look at how the text proposes them, since the text is very subtle at indicating widely differing strategies. Analysing Bacon’s works in his Logique de la sensation, Deleuze shows, for example, that there is a constrictive structure, a sort of compression of the figure, which is constantly exposed to forces that deform it. The figure may remain or else be dissolved by these forces of liquefaction, which generally come into play under the pressure of a very rigourous framework that exercises a deforming action on the central figure. The figure born of this deformation could, in turn, produce other figures; or else the result might be the shapeless, the informal, or else strict descriptive realism, etc. For Deleuze, at any rate, painting does not represent states, but transformations: not signs, but rather forces, passions, which is to say, the way in which the figure undergoes emotional transformations and reveals the transformations of the forces themselves. If, in some cases the deformation may be shapeless, where it is in reality practically the mirror of the figure, in others it appears as a worker of metamorphoses, of a different becoming. The world would thus be the chaotic form of expressive substances; and it is no accident that Deleuze has called himself an expressionist in philosophy…

It is known, however, that Bacon refused Deleuze’s reading, and we may wonder whether Deleuze didn’t limit himself to displaying his own philosophy…

If we said that Bacon was right, we would wipe out Deleuze’s operation, which appears to be that of thinking out his own philosophy using Bacon’s work as a point of departure. In the aesthetic-speculative relationship established by Deleuze there is, if one looks carefully, a reciprocity of translations; and it is a characteristic of a good translation that it can enrich both the language from which it departs and the one in which it arrives.
So it is a matter of creating an intermediate place, where philosophical practice and artistic activity exchange roles – and, along with roles, both the theoretical dimension and emotional intensity, without setting themselves up as a metalanguage that lays claim to the right to judge what is art and philosophy. This is why Deleuze was able to affirm that he was not a philosopher but an intercessor. I would say, a translator. One who intercedes and translates places himself between different sites, works transformations, and is capable of bringing back into play those textual traditions which are philosophy and art, inscribing them one in the other. Why should we create such complicated Utopias for ourselves by staying within our traditions? I think that we must have the courage to think about art right from the basics, and to think beginning with art. And this means having the courage to approach the art object not in order to try to show what philosophy has to say about art. Instead, we must try to extract from the artistic discourse something that discourse is not meant to say and which it was not, perhaps, among the artist’s intentions to say; and from the philosophical discourse something that the discourse did not know that it knew before it met up with the work of art.

* * *

I started from the works in which Magritte uses language. I found myself in a situation that made me reconsider entirely the work of Magritte, a work that had always interested me but that I also always found problematic. I used Foucault’s essay on Ceci n’est pas une pipe. In an interview abaut the show with the Frankfurter Allgemaine’s art critic, he asked me: ‘Don’t you think Magritte is a bad painter?’. And I said: ‘You might be right that he is not a very good painter, but he is a very good artist, whereas somebody like, for exemple, Baselitz, is probably a very good painter but not a good artist!’. Magritte was painting as well as he needed within the meaning system he was constructing. He needed a certain conservative play to construct that which he was going to rupture simultaneously. And I think that one of the great difficulties of art criticism is the ability to approach the appropriateness of a certain practice. It has to do with my distinction between primary and secondary practice. The question is the relation to the production of meaning as an artist, and whether it is in terms of the pr?p?sitional element or in relation to the textual element and the interplay between those things in the way one constructs meaning.

Another provocation. Since we are talking of conceptual art as the exhibition of an idea, I elieve in the transversality of art, in the fact that art does not belong necessarily to the cast of the rtists who paint, and exhibit, and so on… Art, for me, is in all disciplines and can manifest itself in arious f?rms. Don’t you think that we can find the most relevant conceptual artists in the history of science, of philosophy, of thought? Conceptual artists, it seems to me, are maybe only peoplle who divulgate, represent, illustrate, spectacularize intellectual acquisitions made by others in other fields.

You have no art without human intentionality. The reason we don’t consider paintings by onkeys or the drawings by our children as art has t? do with a human being taking active and subjective responsibility for the pr?ducti?n of that cultural meaning. And while you can use the term ‘artist’ as a qualifying term, I think it is always a mistake.
Once when I asked to one of the students ‘Are you an artist?’ and she said ‘I am not sure’, I responded: ‘You should always say yes, I am an artist, then we can discuss whether what you do is interesting or not’. I already talked about ‘stealing’, taking a ready-made from your own culture. Every writer, although he works with words invented by others, claims authorship for what he writes, and instead of using words invented by others, I use sentences, paragraphs, texts, whole libraries, but I still take responsibility for the meaning that is produced. In the end, someone must always take responsibility. I think it is an important point.

Conceptual art could be accused of being too specialized and, in the end, incomprehensible. It seems as if, in order to regain a consensus, conceptual artists are tr?ing to pr?p?se public works (monuments, urban interventions) that can perhaps contribute to regain the collective memory of spaces that are losing it. What do you think of this accusation and of this move of conceptual art towards the public dimensi?n?

It oftens comes up this idea that art in general, and in particular conceptual art, is too specialized, in a way elitist… But it is interesting that even as art is considered a specialized and elitist activity, all over the western world and in certain areas of the global market economy and of the culture that it produces there is an increased interest in contemporary art: attendance records are going higher and higher, more museums are being built, more money is being spent on contemporary art, more interest, more publications. My thesis is, to put it in a banal way, that our society is suffering of a crisis of meaning.
One does not go to one’s priest, one’s rabbi, to the spiritual leader of your culture, to find out what the meaning of reality is. We go to the family doctor, we go to the physicists, we ask the engineers, science is our religion. It is a global religion linked with technology, which seen from an anthropological point of view seems to provide the web of reality, telling us what the truth is. But science, as a religion, is a rather impoverished one. It does not answer a lot of very basic and powerfully important human questions. Philosophy in its classical sense of system building, also died a kind of death in the academy, becoming on the one hand history of philosophy or, on the other hand, theory, which is much limited in its scope with relation to the traditional philosophical agenda. So, we have a lacuna, a gap, and I think that art has continued to emerge to fill that gap. It fills it in a way that is not through system building, it doesn’t make assertions in the same way in which philosophical enterprises make them, it doesn’t attempt to answer big questions in the sense in which religion has traditionally done, Yet, taking from this horizon of mass culture which forms all of us, art manages to take from this horizon and to show, in a Willgensteinian sense, trying to satisfy this missing part from the religion of science. This is the way in which we can see the importance of art.
And on the other level, there is the role of the artist in society in our society, in the western world, our lives are organised in essentially two groups: businessmen and politicians. And both are absolutely devoted to short-term solutions, The businessman wants to see a profit, the politician wants to get reelected. We need in our society people who are thinking of the world in another way: who have other concerns, who keep alive other values, and have another kind of agenda. So, the role of artists is an important one, and while we are willing to respect specialized activity in science, why should we accuse specializati?n in art? What is more elitist than technology, or a particular theoretical involvement in science? The problem is that there is a traditionally shared view of art as a question of taste, and our sense of democracy says that everybody’s opinion is equal because everybody’s taste should be equal. But art isn’t a question of taste, and a professor of aesthetics should know that.

I would like to go back to the issue of intention, not so much in order to focus on the artist’s intention, but on the viewer’s intention. I would like to understand if for a viewer of a work of conceptual art the meaning of the work of art itself relies only in the artist’s intention or whether the viewer’s interpretation can become part of the work.

Something that has always interested me since the beginning, and that could be a proper response to the critique of art as being an activity that is too specialized and elitist, is the effort to understand why we are always put in a passive relation to culture. In a way, it is part of our political disenfranchisement that we sit in a cinema in front of a movie, or at home in front of the television, and in this way we consume. I always thought that you can engage the public into the work and share the experience of the making process of the artist. In some sense, I expect my work to be completed by the public, by what I call, because of the nature of my work, the viewer/reader, They must enter in the process of the construction of the meaning of the work. One of the interesting challenges I had recently, since the beginning of the ’90s, was to be invited to do public works. Previously my work was either in museums and galleries, a frame that sets an event, or it was temporary work that I did on the street, in which noone knew what it was. There were these two extreme aspects. When I have been, instead, invited by an institution to do a public work, it was out into the life of the people of a community, without it being framed ahead of time as art. And this for me was a special problem, that of how to make a work of art which hasa level of accessibility, a meaningful content for the public, without compromising my problematic as an artist. And in the last ten years, this is one of the things I have had to deal with, and I think that again the issue of responsibility comes into play. Some interventions have made allusion to the idea of the artists asserting their will, but I think that the issue is that of somebody taking responsibility for the production of a work and of its possible meaning. I think that the kind of artist that I am, something common to my generation, prefers to go work with other cultures, using their own language (I am not interested in English being a sort of colonial language), something very different from working in your own studio, doing your paintings, shipping them out, without really knowing what the work really does in the world. The painting is so held up by conventions and traditions and presumptions that it can really just float on its own, in a way, into a market and onto the living room wall. Sometimes I think of the simpler life that I would have if I worked in this way, but I made my bed and I shall lie in it, as we say.

Going back once again to the issue oj the artist’s intention, l would like to know whether this has to be necessarily didactic and simplified or whether it can be more problematic, like a subjective interpretation of reality and a production of meaning that ?pens up possible interpretations for the viewer.

I agree. That is what I mean in the text Wordly Tautologies and Other Comments when I speak of art being a test more than an illustration. I also think that it is important that an artwork can fail. Part of the oppression of a cultural life that is so dominated by a market, is that it is very difficult to have meaningful always very upset when in front of a show of a young artist, especially in New York, people immediately make evaluations as if it were a horse race.
Part of the c?mp?sts of one’s practice are one’s failures.
You continue to do interesting work through the complexity of the collapse of the so-called succes. It’s a process, and this p?int really needs to be emphasized. We cannot make a master piece that is a totalizing work in relation to the world. I, as an artist, have a variety of problematics in my work, and not one work satisfies the complexity of all my concerns.
Different works satisfy different things. Only over a period of time one begins to see what the whole body of work is constructing. This is why a retrospective of an artist is always so much more interesting than seeing one work, because you see in the gaps between the works what the artist is really attempting to do, so that often the whole body of work of a lifetime is one big artwork, in a way. Whereas art historians need facts, for the artists art is a process, it is a bunch of empty spaces between objects, and that is really where the artistic process happens. That’s why there is always a bit of a conflict: there is in fact a continuous struggle for the meaning of art that goes on between the artists’ vision of art and the art market and the art historical complex. There are competing paradigms about our approach to this practice, and I say this for the art historians, who might reconsider their own practice, and for the artists, who should be aware that the way art is taught in the academies is often at odds with their experience of the production of it.

You said that production does not have to be consideret only in physical terms, and that conceptual art aims at the producti?n of meaning. I w?uld like therefore to ask you another provocative question: since conceptual art produces meanings, can I consider mysalf one of your collectors?

You clearly already are.

In one of your writings you say that with the ready-made art shefts its objective from the form of language to what in being said. This shift from appearence to conception would have marked the beginning of modern art and of conceptual art. I w?nder, nevertheless, vhether form isn’t essential also for conceptual art. I found very interesting what you said before about the frame, which traditionally marked the thresold between the real space of the viewer and the imaginary space of the painting intended as opening toward a different world with its own rules. In the XXth century this concepti?n has been criticized, and maybe the specificity of much of contemporary art, and in particular of conceptual art, is that of not allowing anymore the separation between one space and the other. At the same time, though, when you put one next to the other a real object (a chair), its image and the vocabulary definiti?n of the word which denotates it, you require three very different perceptual approaches, and in this, it seems to me, form still plays a central role.

Yes, if we communicate there has to be a physical dimensi?n, as it appears evident if one considers the importance of the oral tradition. But there is nonetheless a shift of emphasis that has to be acknowledged. To go back to painting, for example, when I was an art student I was confr?nted with works like, for example, the Targets or the Flags of Jasper Johns, and one of the things I found curious is that I was seeing a painting hanging on the wall, and somehow the paint on the surface of the painting was magical, was the window onto another world, but the paint on the wall was simply the paint on the wall. I realized that there was a kind of leap, very akin to a religious one, of this view into another world, this fictive space that the painting would provide. And what was interesting about Jasper Johns was that all of a sudden, you were wondering whether the flag or the target were inside the fictive reality or were in the room l was in. Jasper Johns’s paintings were right on the edge between the room you were in and the fictive reality. And this was the beginning of the opacity of painting. For language to work it must remain transparent, but the whole history of art of the XXth century is that of the language of art (of painting and sculpture) becoming opaque. That is the fictive space constructed around the sculpture, that fiction that needs a kind of belief, the fiction of the window of the painting, becoming no longer transparent but opaque. And when you have the painted object, the flag that is in the room you are in, when you have a striped painting by Frank Stella, when you have a metal box by the ex-painter Donald Judd, you begin to realize the deterioration of the transparency of art and you begin to realize that you are confronted with objects that are asserting in a mute way a certain meaning. And then you ask yourself: why that object? why a canvas-painted object? why one which carries with it so much historical baggage? For me, that prior meaning eclipses the kind of meaning I want to assert. So, we began to realize that these objects were floating in a sea of words, that our perceptions were organized by our language, that vision itself is theoretically and linguistically organized activity, that we see through our culture, and if we have to deal with language why not deal with it critically through the front door instead of having it organize a uncritically our perception through the back door. So this is why it became for me an absolute necessity to deal with language.

In ?our dealing with language, which is the importance of the iconic dimension of language itself? As a matter of fact, language originates as image, as stylized image. Is this a present element in your work?

In principle, whatever is part of the meaning that is constructued in a work becomes part of the constitutive elements, it is important to me and l consider it. My choices of typography are not accidental. I work with every aspect of what could have a signifying dimension. For exemple, when I do an exhibition, for me it is very important the invitation that goes out in the mail. I think that from the very first moment one receives an invitation, one is already organizing the psychological approach to the work, and this is the beginning of how people will begin to frame and consider and experience the work that they will see at the gallery or museum. ‘God is in the details’, remember that one? I do believe that God is in the details, when it comes to these things. When I work with neon, for exemple, since it is so often associated with signs, beer signs etc., I try to alter it from that close association. That’s why in working on the façade of the Querini Stampalia I chose the typeface ‘Bembo’. So, there are certain typographical strategies that I employ, so that when people approach a work their associations go in the direction I want. So, for me these are not aesthetic, purely decorative, formalistic issues, it’s really an issue about meaning construction.

Don’t you think that conceptual art, in its attempt to free itsel from any kind of rule thus provoking a virtually endless series of producti?ns, runs the risk of becoming redundant? It is a danger that I see in your w ork as well.

I had a very interesting conversation with Paolo Fabbri about the verse ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ by Gertrude Stein. You have three roses, not one, but I don’t think there is any redundancy. I was thinking before about Levi-Strauss’s interpretation of the myth, and what he says about the overlaps. I think that the context often alters greatly the same things done more than once, and the context is something that is continously in movement and in flux, I often work in series, and do installations in different cities, and I suppose that in some ways one could say that I repeat myself, but in fact, by doing the same thing you show difference. When you work in relation to a context, when that’s the horizon, the way you can really show difference, is by so-called repetition.

Which is the relati?nship between a work of art and the context in which it is placed? Is it more imp?rtant the textual or the c?ntextual dimension?

As time goes on, I find architecture more and more interesting in many ways, Marcel Duchamp was once asked by a journalist: ‘What is the difference, for you, between architecture and sculpture?’. Duchamp answered: ‘Plumbing’. It is very interesting how now it seems so difficult to make abstract works, since they look so decorative. I have been looking at the work of younger artists for the last twenty years and there seems to be always the need for what could be called an anchoring principle, that either is the reference to the horizon of mass culture, or the use of language, or the photographic imagery, but it seems impossible to make an abstract work of art. It seems that the belief system is no longer there, so that it ends up looking nothing else than pretty design, decoration, but that profoundity once associated with abstract painting is no longer there, at least for the vast majority of the younger artists I have met. So, architecture, furniture, they all seem to provide this anchoring dimension. As you know, I used furniture in my work for the very beginning, because it was neutral, it wasn’t loaded with artistic meaning, it was not part of a vocabulary. And it was the same for photography. My great attraction to photography started because in l965, of course we had Man Ray and we had some things earlier in the century, and of course there was a Warhol, but in the end they were functioning as paintings. So, to use photographs in the way I did to me was great because it seemed neutral, clean clean of other meanings, with no aura, no baggage. It was mine, and I didn’t have to go through the miasma of all prior meanings. As time went on, when I did the Second Investigations using public media, in the same period artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Jan Dibbets, Douglas Huebler, Dennis Oppenheim started using photographs. In particular, the land artists who were making works far away, needed to bring back something like photos of these works in the desert, and so on. This was in l968, and I had been using photos already for about three years. It gradually became a common practice, like another form of painting, and then video showed up. The problem then became the one of falling into a media-defined activity. This was something I wanted to avoid. So I had to leave photography because it started becoming ‘arty’, and so I began to do the public media works. And this is a constant-battle. The same happens with the use of typefaces. You have to be constantly aware of the coloration of meaning they are loaded with, and these change with time.

Often, the spaces you use for your installations are passage spaces: entrances, c?rrid?rs, underpasses… If on the one hand this seems to facilitate movement, ?n the other it contrasts with the one-directional readibility of words and phrases, which are not mere decorative signs and therefore impose a direction and a time for the reading. Don’t you think that this collocation could damage your work?

It is true, I do tend to choose places where people are moving, passing. I find that I often like to disrupt the rarified contemplative atmosphere of a lot of the museological experience, which goes towards objects and towards the preciousness of the things on the wall. I think that if people are on the way somewhere, if they are in movement, it’s much more condusive to the mental state I would like people to approach my work with.
In many of my works, for example in the one on the façade of the Querini Stampalia, there is no beginning-middle-end, you can approcah it from different directions and it will be equally meaningful. That’s true of a lot my work. If think what you blame in my work in many cases should be directed towards the architecture, which is organizing you, and what we tend to do is naturalize architecture. Architecture, in some ways, is the nost political of art forms, because it presumes that life the goes on with it. We have a tendency to naturalize it. I of course apply myself to the architectural context with my work and I pull out in use thing that architecture gives, granted we have words, and with words one follows another. Sometimes I set a kind of horizon, as you saw in many of the installations, but that is really a horizon which gives a direction. Many of the other elements within the works are much more free-floating, and they are sometimes against that horizon which would seem to give you a particular order.
I often give an order to then take away from the order. The meaning that is in that horizon-text is often there to be played off of.

If it is true, as you said, that our contemporary world is going through a crisis of meaning, and if it is true that contemporary art, including conceptual art, refers itself to the horizon of mass culture, doesn’t art run the risk of relying on something that is losing its meaning?

We are talking about what artists use to work with, what is their material. And my distinction was only between on one side working within a tradition that provides continuity over what the individual artist is doing, and on the other leaving behind this tradition of ‘forms and taking from the horizon of mass culture that is around them, the things that construct the present-day reality. In this case, their relation to this reality has a different aspect to it, and I think a much more valuable one.

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