Picasso and the Medium of Desire

Picasso and the Medium of Desire

An interesting idea about language is that we are continually creating new media of representation, which permit new practices of use and new experiences.  In this piece, which I wrote some time ago, I explore the way in which Picasso and the Cubists created a new medium of expression.

(written 5/8/96)

I recently re-read an essay by John Berger in his book “The sense of sight” about the Cubists and their place in the history of art.  I’m trying to sort out his ideas and see if I can work out how they relate to my project…

Start with Berger’s conclusion:

“The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art.  The incongruity of the moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of all art.  What is the meaning of that incongruity and the shock which accompanies it?  It is to be found in the distinction between the actual and the desirable.  All art is an attempt to define and make unnatural this distinction.

For a long time it was thought that art was the imitation and celebration of nature.  The confusion arose because the concept of nature itself was a projection of the desired.  Now that we have cleansed our view of nature, we see that art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given – which we are not obliged to accept with gratitude.  Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment.  Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror.  Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral.  Sometimes it describes the desired.

Thus art, however free or anarchic its mode of expression, is always a plea for greater control and an example, within the artificial limits of a ‘medium’, of the advantages of such control.  Theories about the artist’s inspiration are all projections back on to the artist of the effect which his work has upon us.  The only inspiration which exists is the intimation of our own potential.  Inspiration is the mirror image of history: by means of it we can see our past, while turning our back upon it.  And it is precisely this which happens at the instant when a piece of music begins.  We suddenly become aware of the previous silence at the same moment as our attention is concentrated upon following sequences and resolutions which will contain the desired.

The Cubist moment was such a beginning, defining desires which are still unmet.”

I would want to rephrase this last sentence: that Cubism defined a new mode of expressing desire.  And Berger would probably agree.  Earlier, Berger had said of Cubism, “however much its spirit was rejected, it supplied to all later movements the primary means of their own liberation.  That is to say, it re-created the syntax of art so that it could accommodate modern experience.”

[This seems to fit into my wider project: of coming up with a system that allows us to model more closely the structure of desire.  It is exciting to think that the Cubists may have made advances toward that goal.]

In the body of his essay, Berger identifies a number of ways in which the Cubist mode of expressing desire was different than what came before.  I will pick out four, explore expansions of his descriptions and understanding, and claim that these are the key elements underlying my approach to the theory of meaning.  I know I’m going out on a limb at this point, because I know so little about the Cubists, but I want to try to stake out a position and then see where it takes me.

What was so special about Cubism?  What made the “syntax” of Cubism different that what had come before?  Four things: 1) no single spatial framework; 2) a shift in focus from the objects from which the painting is composed to their manner of combination; 3) treating empty space as on a par with what is given explicitly, 4) the work of art as dynamic and not static; a dynamism I claim is made possible by the way the Cubists treated empty space.

1) No single spatial framework.  “The relation between any two forms does not, as it does in illusionist space, establish the rule for all the spatial relationships between all the forms portrayed in the picture.”  Cubism provided a way for artists to structure a picture in such a way as to “admit the coexistence of different modes of space and time.”  These multiple frames of reference are unified by the medium of the presentation, not a viewing point separate from the medium.

2) A shift in focus from the objects from which the painting is composed to their manner of combination.  Berger: The Cubist treatment of form was not a simplification.  “Their aim was to arrive at a far more complex image of reality than had ever been attempted in painting before.  To appreciate this we must abandon a habit of centuries: the habit of looking at every object or body as if it were complete in itself, its completeness making it separate.  The cubists were concerned with the interaction between objects.”  I would say: the tokens of which the paintings are composed: “cubes, cones, cylinders, or later, … flatly articulated facets or planes with sharp edges” are not intrinisically meaningful.  Any meaning which the work has comes from the modes by which they are composed.

How could this be possible?  How could a mode of composition lend meaning to intrinsically meaningless elements?  The answer I think is in the third and fourth advances below.

3) A change in the way empty space was treated.  Berger: “Space is part of the continuity of events within it.  It is in itself an event, comparable with other events.  It is not a mere container.  And this is what the few Cubist masterpieces show us.  The space between objects is part of the same structure as the objects themselves.”

4) A shift in the work of art from static to dynamic.  Berger: “The Cubists created the possibility of art revealing processes instead of static entities.  The content of their art consists of various modes of interaction: the interaction between different aspects of the same event, between empty space and filled space, between structure and movement, between the seer and the thing seen.  Rather than ask of a Cubist picture: Is it true? or Is it sincere?  one should ask ‘Does it continue?'”

And in what way continue? Berger again: “We start from the surface, we follow a sequence of forms which leads into the picture, and then suddenly we arrive back at the surface again and deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon it, before making another foray…when we ‘deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon the picture surface,’ what we in fact do is find the sign for what we have just discovered: a sign which was always there but which previously we could not read.”

My interpretation: what Berger is describing is in fact a process of deductive inference.  A process of drawing conclusions from the premises presented in the painting.  As in deductive inference, we only draw out and make explicit information which was already implicitly present in the premises.

What makes such a deductive process possible?  The varied forms which the Cubists use constrain the empty spaces which those forms outline in such a way that the possibilities for extending what is explicitly given are limited in certain ways.  The empty spaces create the places where the meaning can be unfolded.

That was too fast, but I will expand on it.   In any event, these four principles are what I am trying to capture in a new approach to the theory of meaning.  I would like to construct a theory of meaning which is capable of modeling the meaning of expressions which have structure like a Cubist painting… which will be the structure of the multimedia presentations we will experience on the Internet of the future… for it will enable a more satisfying model of the structure of our desire…

Copyright © 2008. Alan Bush. All rights reserved.

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