The Truth in Painting
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The Truth in Painting

Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Bennington, Ian McLeod

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The Truth in Painting

Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Bennington, Ian McLeod

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"The four essays in this volume constitute Derrida's most explicit and sustained reflection on the art work as pictorial artifact, a reflection partly by way of philosophical aesthetics (Kant, Heidegger), partly by way of a commentary on art works and art scholarship (Van Gogh, Adami, Titus-Carmel). The illustrations are excellent, and the translators, who clearly see their work as both a rendering and a transformation, add yet another dimension to this richly layered composition. Indispensable to collections emphasizing art criticism and aesthetics."—Alexander Gelley, Library Journal

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Fragments detached (unframed) from the course of an exposition. Or in other words, of a seminar.
A first (shorter) version—very abridged in the protocols entitled “Lemmata”—appeared in Digraphe 3 and 4 (1974). The fourth section, “The Colossal,” is entirely unpublished.
The first version was not accompanied by any “illustrative” exhibition. Here it is different. But in this first chapter or quarter-book, the iconography has not the same purpose as in the three following it, where the writing seems to refer to the “picture.” Here, a certain illustrative detachment, without reference, without title or legitimacy, comes as if to “illustrate,” in place of ornament, the unstable topos of ornamentality. Or in other words, to “illustrate,” if that is possible, the parergon.
1. Lemmata
it’s enough
to say: abyss and satire of the abyss
begin and end with a “that’s enough”
which would have nothing to do with the sufficing or self-sufficing of sufficiency, nothing to do with satisfaction. Reconsider, further on, the whole syntax of these untranslatable locutions, the with of the nothing to do [rien à voir avec, rien à faire avec]. Write, if possible, finally, without with, not without1 but without with, finally, not even oneself.
Opening with the satis, the enough (inside and outside, above and below, to left and right), satire, farce on the edge of excess
displacement of the “pivot” [cheville, also “ankle”]
(“avec,” “cum,” “ama,” “simul,” etc.) since “Ousia et gramme.”2 Seek as always the lock and the “little key.” Lure of writing with oneself. “With resources which would lead into the interior of the system of painting, importing into the theory of painting all the questions and all the question-codes developed here, around the effects of the ‘proper name’ and the ‘signature,’ stealing, in the course of this break-in, all the rigorous criteria of a framing—between the inside and the outside—carrying off the frame (or rather its joints, its angles of assembly) no less than the inside or the outside, the painting or the thing (imagine the damage caused by a theft which robbed you only of your frames, or rather of their joints, and of any possibility of reframing your valuables or your art-objects).” (Glas)
what is a title?
And what if parergon were the title?
Here the false title is art. A seminar would treat of art. Of art and the fine arts. It would thus answer to a program and to one of its great questions. These questions are all taken from a determinate set. Determined according to history and system. The history would be that of philosophy within which the history of the philosophy of art would be marked off, insofar as it treats of art and of the history of art: its models, its concepts, its problems have not fallen from the skies, they have been constituted according to determinate modes at determinate moments. This set forms a system, a greater logic and an encyclopedia within which the fine arts would stand out as a particular region. The Agrégation de philosophie also forms a history and a system
how a question of this type—art—becomes inscribed
in a program. We must not only turn to the history of philosophy for example to the Greater Logic or the Encyclopedia of Hegel, to his Lectures on Aesthetics which sketch out, precisely, one part of the encyclopedia, system of training for teaching and cycle of knowledge. We must take account of certain specific relays, for example those of so-called philosophy teaching in France, in the institution of its programs, its forms of examinations and competitions, its scenes and its rhetoric. Whoever undertook such an inquiry—and I do no more here than point out its stakes and its necessity—would no doubt have to direct herself, via a very over-determined political history, toward the network indicated by the proper name of Victor Cousin, that very French philosopher and politican who thought himself very Hegelian and never stopped wanting to transplant (that is just about his word for it) Hegel into France, after having insistently asked him, in writing at least, to impregnate him, Cousin, and through him French philosophy (letters quoted in Glas, pp. 207ff). Strengthened, among other things, by this more or less hysterical pregnancy, he played a determinant role, or at least represented one, in the construction of the French University and its philosophical institution—all the teaching structures that we still inhabit. Here I do no more than name, with a proper name as one of the guiding threads, the necessity of a deconstruction. Following the consistency of its logic, it attacks not only the internal edifice, both semantic and formal, of philosophemes, but also what one would be wrong to assign to it as its external housing, its extrinsic conditions of practice: the historical forms of its pedagogy, the social, economic or political structures of this pedagogical institution. It is because deconstruction interferes with solid structures, “material” institutions, and not only with discourses or signifying representations, that it is always distinct from an analysis or a “critique.” And in order to be pertinent, deconstruction works as strictly as possible in that place where the supposedly “internal” order of the philosophical is articulated by (internal and external) necessity with the institutional conditions and forms of teaching. To the point where the concept of institution itself would be subjected to the same deconstructive treatment. But I am already leading into next year’s seminar (1974–5)
to delimit
now a narrower entry into what I shall try to expound this year in the course. Traditionally, a course begins by the semantic analysis of its title, of the word or concept which entitles it and which can legitimate its discourse only by receiving its own legitimation from that discourse. Thus one would begin by asking oneself: What is art? Then: Where does it come from? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art”? For these questions, the guiding thread (but it is precisely toward the notion of the thread and the interlacing that I should like to lead you, from afar) will always have been the existence of “works,” of “works of art.” Hegel says so at the beginning of the Lectures on Aesthetics: we have before us but a single representation, namely, that there are works of art. This representation can furnish us with an appropriate point of departure. So the question then becomes: What is “the origin of the work of art”? And it is not without significance that this question gives its title to one of the last great discourses on art, that of Heidegger.
This protocol of the question installs us in a fundamental presupposition, and massively predetermines the system and combinatory possibilities of answers. What it begins by implying is that art—the word, the concept, the thing—has a unity and, what is more, an originary meaning, an etymon, a truth that is one and naked [une vérité une et nue], and that it would be sufficient to unveil it through history. It implies first of all that “art” can be reached following the three ways of word, concept, and thing, or again of signifier, signified, and referent, or even by some opposition between presence and representation.
Through history: the crossing can in this case just as well denote historicism, the determining character of the historicity of meaning, as it can denote ahistoricity, history crossed, transfixed in the direction of meaning, in the sense of a meaning [le sens d’un sens] in itself ahistorical. The syntagm “through history” could entitle all our questions without constraining them in advance. By presupposing the etymon—one and naked [un et nu]a presupposition without which one would perhaps never open one’s mouth, by beginning with a meditation on the apparent polysemy of tekhnē in order to lay bare the simple kernel which supposedly lies hidden behind the multiplicity, one gives oneself to thinking that art has a meaning, one meaning. Better, that its history is not a history or that it is one history only in that it is governed by this one and naked meaning, under the regime of its internal meaning, as history of the meaning of art. If one were to consider the physis/tekhnē opposition to be irreducible, if one were to accredit so hastily its translation as nature/art or nature/technique, one would easily commit oneself to thinking that art, being no longer nature, is history. The opposition nature/history would be the analogical relay of physis/tekhnē. One can thus already say: as for history, we shall have to deal with the contradiction or the oscillation between two apparently incompatible motifs. They both ultimately come under one and the same logical formality: namely, that if the philosophy of art always has the greatest difficulty in dominating the history of art, a certain concept of the historicity of art, this is, paradoxically, because it too easily thinks of art as historical. What I am putting forward here obviously assumes the transformation of the concept of history, from one statement to the other. That will be the work of this seminar
If, there
fore, one were to broach lessons on art or aesthetics by a question of this type (“What is art?” “What is the origin of art or of works of art?” “What is the meaning of art?” “What does art mean?” etc.), the form of the question would already provide an answer. Art would be predetermined or precomprehended in it. A conceptual opposition which has traditionally served to comprehend art would already, always, be at work there: for example the opposition between meaning, as inner content, and form. Under the apparent diversity of the historical forms of art, the concepts of art or the words which seem to translate “art” in Greek, Latin, the Germanic languages, etc. (but the closure of this list is already problematic), one would be seeking a one-and-naked meaning [unsens un et nu] which would inform from the inside, like a content, while distinguishing itself from the forms which it informs. In order to think art in general, one thus accredits a series of oppositions (meaning/form, inside/outside, content/container, signified/signifier, represented/representer, etc.) which, precisely, structure the traditional interpretation of works of art. One makes of art in general an object in which one claims to distinguish an inner meaning, the invariant, and a multiplicity of external variations through which, as through so many veils, one would try to see or restore the true, full, originary meaning: one, naked. Or again, in an analogous gesture, by asking what art means (to say), one submits the mark “art” to a very determined regime of interpretation which has supervened in history: it consists, in its tautology without reserve, in interrogating the vouloir-dire of every work of so-called art, even if its form is not that of saying. In this way one wonders what a plastic or musical work means (to say), submitting all productions to the authority of speech and the “discursive” arts
such that
by accelerating the rhythm a little one would go on to this collusion: between the question (“What is art?” “What is the origin of the work of art?” “What is the meaning of art or of the history of art?”) and the hierarchical classification of the arts. When a philosopher repeats this question without transforming it, without destroying it in its form, its question-form, its onto-interrogative structure, he has already subjected the whole of space to the discursive arts, to voice and the logos. This can be verified: teleology and hierarchy are prescribed in the envelope of the question
the philosophical en
closes art in its circle but its discourse on art is at once, by the same token, caught in a circle.
Like the figure of the third term, the figure of the circle asserts itself at the beginning of the Lectures on Aesthetics and the Origin of the Work of Art. So very different in their aim, their procedure, their style, these two discourses have in common, as a common interest, that they exclude—(that) which then comes to form, close and bound them from inside and outside alike.
And if it were a frame
one of them, Hegel’s,
gives classical teleology its greatest deployment. He finishes off, as people say a little too easily, onto-theology. The other, Heidegger’s, attempts, by taking a step backwards, to go back behind all the oppositions that have commanded the history of aesthetics. For example, in passing, that of form and matter, with all its derivatives. Two discourses, then, as different as could be, on either side of a line whose tracing we imagine to be simple and nondecomposable. Yet how can it be that they have in common this: the subordination of all the arts to speech, and, if not to poetry, at least to the poem, the said, language, speech, nomination (Sage, Dichtung, Sprache, Nennen)? (Reread here the third and final part of the Origin . . . , “Truth and Art.”)
not go any further, for the moment, in the reading
of these two discourses. Keeping provisionally to their introductions, I notice the following: they both start out from a figure of the circle. And they stay there. They stand in it even if their residence in the circle apparently does not have the same status in each case. For the moment I do not ask myself: What is a circle? I leave to one side the figure of the circle, its place, its privilege or its decadence in the history of art. Since the treatment of the circle is part of the history of art and is delimited in it as much as it delimits it, it is perhaps not a neutral gesture to apply to it something that is also nothing other than one of its figures. It is still a circle, which redoubles, re-marks, and places en abyme the singularity of this figure. Circle of circles, circle in the encircled circle. How could a circle place itself en abyme?
The circle and the abyss, that would be the title. On the way we will no doubt encounter the question of the title. What happens when one entitles a “work of art”? What is the topos of the title? Does it take place (and where?) in relation to the work? On the edge? Over the edge? On the internal border? In an overboard that is re-marked and reapplied, by invagination, within, between the presumed center and the circumference? Or between that which is framed and that which is framing in the frame? Does the topos of the tit...

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Citation styles for The Truth in Painting
APA 6 Citation
Derrida, J. (2020). The Truth in Painting ([edition unavailable]). The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Derrida, Jacques. (2020) 2020. The Truth in Painting. [Edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press.
Harvard Citation
Derrida, J. (2020) The Truth in Painting. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.