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`The Truth in Painting' Or in Text? The Dialogue Between Studio Art and Theory in Education.
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Irina Costache

“I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you” Cézanne wrote to the French artist Emile Bernard in a letter dated October 23, 1905. The chronological positioning of this statement within the trajectory of the artist’s life and career, only a year before his death, endows this phraseological commitment with a level of confessional symbolism. In this context, the epistemological modernist idiom of truth and painting undergoes a significant transformative process. Cézanne is about to confide in his friend and divulge to all of us the “tools of the trade,” as a magician who would expose his well-kept secrets in a tell-all show. But has Cézanne fulfilled his self-imposed deed of telling us the “truth”? Can we retrace now, almost a hundred years later, the episodic pilgrimage that would take us to the genesis of “truth in painting”? Cézanne’s threatening semantic betrayal has not, in fact, disclosed any intrinsic pictorial secrets. Rather, it further concealed, protected, enhanced and sealed the very privileged realm of authorship it supposedly aimed to reveal. The didactic, even paternal tone of this concise and sweeping statement heightens the value of a signifying system based on the discourse of the individual and engendered modalities of creation.

Before I get too deeply involved in analyzing Cézanne’s statement I need to acknowledge that it is not Cézanne’s sentence I use but the title of Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting. This book, whose title is a direct quotation turned into an appropriation, was written in the late 1970s and translated ten years later into English. The cover of the English edition, familiar to many graduate and undergraduate students nationwide, did not even bother to visually acknowledge Cézanne. Instead, by reproducing Adami’s study after Derrida’s Glas, it emphasizes the layers of meanings deriving from textual and visual attributions and appropriations. The text offers an excellent example of the ontological quest of post-modernism and exposes the limitations of modernism. The use of textual collage with sporadic references to images, none by Cézanne by the way, reinforces the complex links that are established between visuality and the set of norms that made them accessible and coherent. Derrida’s transgression from visual to textual “contaminates” the discursive modes and establishes a process of valorizing inherent genealogies deriving from interchangeable privileged gazes and artistic productions. The dynamic between Cézanne and Derrida, and between artist and philosopher, while inscribed in a series of validated models, constructs a multi-level narrative of fragmented dissonances and equivocal authorship. There is, however, a homogeneity in this apparent disjunctive dialogue. Both individuals command an authoritative position that accounts for their legacy in their respective fields. The link established by the author, Derrida, a seminal theorist of the post-modern era between himself and Cézanne, a key figure of early modernism, paradoxically not only restores engendered artistic hierarchies but also valorizes the continuity of French cultural supremacy. Derrida’s appropriation is chronologically linear and one-sided since we are forever deprived of examining Cézanne’s response. Moreover, the philosopher’s usage of the painter’s written statement rather than visual expression further decentralizes the converging point of the search for primordial sources. Where is truth to be found? In painting or in text?

My analysis so far has purposely provided neither the key to finding the truth in painting or text, nor has it substantially facilitated an understanding of either Cézanne’s art or Derrida’s theoretical approach. The intention was to acknowledge that theoretical jargon may often obscure the very subject it intends to clarify. But should the fear of unfamiliar words and new interpretative strategies prompt us to simplify our vocabulary and methodologies when the art critiqued is anything but straightforward? For example, Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, a painting that may hold the key to “truth,” is a familiar image but hardly a simple one. The central motif, the mountain, a visible natural mark in the relief of southern France and a lifelong theoretical and pictorial challenge for Cézanne, explored in many of his works, displays the difficulty of finding “the truth” in painting or text. If we were to look for the epistemological origins where are they to be found: in Cézanne’s work, (available to most of us most of the time in the form of a reproduction), in other works by him, his extensive writings, the story of his life, the multitudes of texts that have evaluated and analyzed his art (which include Derrida’s), in the original painting, or should we go as far as visiting Aix-en-Provence and see the mountain ourselves? Which one is the more meaningful experience or the essential path that could lead us in the right direction and which one should prevail? Should we grab our dictionaries together with the latest version of art theory or should we rush to museums, galleries, computer screens and artists’ studios? How is art defined? Where is the truth? In painting or in text?

The pressure to include more theory within the art curriculum has been a reality of education for at least the last two decades. These changes have been justified by culture itself. We live in a time when aesthetic values, or to put it plainly, what we call art, encompass unexpected eclectic paradigms. The deceiving semantic equality and undisputed visual distinctiveness articulated by Bernini’s 17th century Trevi Fountain, a popular tourist attraction in Rome, and Duchamp’s 1917 famous ready-made Fountain, an object also popular but for very different reasons, discloses this contemporary dilemma. Not only do these works share the same title but they are also both called art and, identified as such, their differences related to form, time, geography, context and material can be reduced to this essential common denominator which allows them to coexist and compete for our attention in galleries, books, lectures and journals. In contrast, the unhampered marks in prehistoric caves and modern urban tunnels reveal that similar visual expressions can carry very different meanings in the artistic discourse. The difference between the careful preservation of prehistoric traces and the nullification of similar contemporary inscriptions through “operation clean sweep,” clearly exposes discrepancies between visual concordance and artistic worth. The art of this century has daringly stepped out of frames and galleries into everyday objects and the surrounding environment. However, the binary opposition between reality and artistic space and the heightened value attributed to an object transferred from a street corner into a museum, which continues to legitimize and codify the operational framework of artistic merit, reveals that discursive norms not visual perception or physical attributes are seminal to the genesis of aesthetics values.

“You must not only believe what you see you must also understand what you see,” proclaimed Leonardo more than five centuries ago. The overwhelming abundance and heterogeneity of visual paradigms available today have bluntly dismissed chronological, formal and conceptual continuity and, by blurring the lines between popular and high culture, have forever shattered the undisputed value of the “eternal masterpiece.” The contemporary symbolism of Nike and Hercules, no longer associated with classicism but as reigning gods of a new TV mythology and the ad nauseam references to Mona Lisa as the queen of Epicurean, not aesthetic, sophistication have exposed a web of continuous possibilities of developing and evolving visual relationships which prompt novel cultural patterns and reinforce the timely poignancy of Leonardo’s statement. In this context of visual and textual overlapping and ambiguous and unexpected analogies that construct conflicting meanings, where is the path to that elusive “truth” to be found? In painting or in text?


The recent overemphasis on developing artists’ ability to express themselves in written and verbal form and the assumption that post-modernism must be “cerebra l” and not “emotional” has enhanced the need to justify visuality with textuality, minimizing in the process the role of perception and aesthetics and creating a gratuitous supremacy of text over image. I am a strong supporter of mastering semantics, both in verbal and textual form, since they can only empower an individual in any field. It is for this reason that I have collaborated extensively with Writing Across the Curriculum, a program for students at Loyola University. However, the mandatory statements attached to art with required comparisons to other works often fail to provide a meaningful dialogue between words and images and thus contribute to the devaluation of the role of both theory and aesthetics in art. Instead of being concerned with positioning their art within the artistic arena, sometimes even before its completion, art students, and for that matter students from any major, should be taught to develop a visual literacy based on a broad cognitive and perceptive education and experience that would empower them to discern meanings and values in connection with texts and supportive materials but also independent of an already validated point of view. The fear of being “wrong” when stating an aesthetic opinion, that it may not “fit” within the latest theoretical approach derives from lack of both theoretical and visual knowledge. I know what I like is too often I like what I know.

It is undoubtedly ironic, therefore, that in this visually obsessed century when “image is everything” and everything is defined through images, art students are asked to learn the tricks of textual literacy but no one is concerned with teaching visual literacy. Why are programs such as writing across the curriculum being developed in many universities when no one seems to be concerned with seeing across the curriculum? (Seeing in this context is not implied as a superficial perceptive skill, but rather as a cognitive visual experience.) In the contemporary cultural context when the printed page has been replaced with the screen (where seeing precedes reading) as the essential source of knowledge and information are students from any discipline well served in their education if they can read but don’t know how to look? The cross-disciplinary significance of visuality has convincingly been demonstrated throughout history. For example, reading maps and looking at scientific plates (x-rays, new forms of medical imaging etc.) have required highly skilled and sophisticated connections between visual and textual knowledge to establish meaningful interpretations and understandings. Similarly, the most complex mathematical, physical and chemical formulas have used visual forms to express their abstracted thoughts. Contemporary culture has become increasingly dependent on visuality and has created an expectation for instant communication and immediate gratification. A picture may be worth a thousand words but do students have the tools to find those words and further decipher their meanings? And, to use another popular statement, if you cannot judge a book by its cover, a superficial liaison between viewer and image can be established on a perceptive level. After all, these are the visual arts.

Contemporary theoretical approaches have appropriated the term “text” and the process of “reading” for images. Dismissing the exclusive merit of formal painterly qualities these theories have inserted visuality into complex cultural codes that required an analysis beyond superficial viewing and recognized the transformation undergone by art in acquiring successive contextual meanings. While these substitutions dispelled the artificial isolation of art, they have created a linguistic superiority of one activity over the other and, by valorizing the reading process, established an inherently hierarchic relationship, which subordinates visuality to textual literacy. The tradition of written text as the epitome of communicative trust is deeply rooted in Western norms. But even in Western culture, for almost a thousand years during the medieval period, visuality was entrusted with complicated meanings that were at the core of legitimizing the canons that governed the essential aspects of life. A sophisticated visual vocabulary (some of which still eludes us today) was able to get across abstract thoughts to a (textually) illiterate audience. Are contemporary readers clearly more equipped with tools and knowledge than their medieval counterparts, as well versed in contemporary visual literacy as they are in textual? The explanations that accompany the art exhibited in museums, whether in form of labels or various types of “guided tours,” reveal that, fearful of making judgments on its own, the audience readily accepts its “blindness” and seeks immediate recourse for visual experience in a generic textual reference. Is this practice reversible? Do many books use illustrations as a supplemental device for elucidating content? Do many texts divulge the meaning of a novel before the reader gets a change to read it? And how many readers check other texts just to be fully informed about the book they read? Reading is a key educational tool. Textual illiteracy is recognized as a major problem, yet visual illiteracy does not seem to bother anyone.

The complex the dialogue between “seeing is believing” and the belief system that makes seeing meaningful has been further problematized by the novel artistic forms and practices introduced in the modern era. “What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art” argued Arthur Danto. Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and Warhol’s Brillo Box would not exist as works of art without a discursive context that facilitates the visual and conceptual communicative processes to become accessible to viewers. Theories are indispensable cognitive guides that allow us to understand signifying systems, distinguish aesthetic experiences and reflect upon their cultural meanings and implications. However, the adoption of literary models for art theory methodologies has tensed the relationship between making and analyzing art and sparked on the one hand a nostalgia for the isolated art object, and on the other generated a self-referential textuality. This unnecessary binary opposition between practice and theory has been partially fuelled by the differences between artistic and literary criticism. Using text to analyze text creates an inherent homogeneity, comfort and commonality, which is disrupted when textual modalities are employed to analyze visuality. Unlike the literary critic, who is a writer, art theorists do not have to be visual artists. It is for this reason that studio art and its history, criticism and theory are often perceived in higher education programs and in the professional arena as competing, independent and even unnecessarily antagonizing disciplines. Even though many departments have been unified under the umbrella term “Visual Arts,” comprising theory and practice, this union has been a result of economic needs and against the will of the faculty. The loss of the individual label (fine arts, art history, design etc.) has been viewed as a loss of identity and endlessly mourned with nostalgia for a bygone era.

The distinction, however, between making art and thinking and writing about it should imply neither a mutual exclusiveness nor a hierarchic differentiation of these processes. Historically, Leonardo, Alberti, Vasari, Poussin and Lebrun, to use only a few examples, demonstrated that producing art and theorizing about it need not be antithetically opposed activities and that meaningful contributions can be achieved successfully in more than one field. But few theorists have built memorable architectural structures as Alberti did and even fewer artists have been entrusted with the directorship of an influential art institution as Lebrun was in seventeenth century France. As theory and practice became more specialized in the modern era and their operational framework clearly defined both in the cultural milieu and the educational process, their independent paths and boundaries curtailed possibilities of interaction. The creations of categories and divisions have further emphasized highly individualized idiosyncrasies and, by exposing differences, diminished the value of a unifying artistic vocabulary. The transformative cultural process of the last decades has critically examined the artificial separations between theoretical and studio practices and disclosed viable connections between making, writing, thinking, looking and talking about art. The recent dialogue between the various components of the artistic discourse has recognized the common denominators shared by theoretical analyses and artistic production, one of which is clearly exposed by Derrida: the central objective of the theorist and artist is to unmask and understand artistic meanings in painting or text.

The notion that “true” art is the product of individuals who are social outcasts, inarticulate, or suffering from some sort of mental disease, and preferably dead at a young age, and that their emotional states make them incapable of in-depth understanding, in stark contrast to the image of the erudite, restrained and controlled scholars, are outdated, romanticized and mythical models, perpetuated, unfortunately, by the media. Moreover, the assumption that artists make art but can’t or do not have to talk or write about it, an excuse widely used by art students, and that theorists rarely know anything about the creative process, has been consistently refuted by the many texts written from Leonardo da Vinci to Mary Kelly. The abundance of these carefully articulated writings demonstrate the thoughtfulness and critical awareness artists and theorists have of the dialogue between text and image inherent to making as well as understanding art. Even van Gogh, a martyr of the stereotypical “misunderstood genius,” whose artistic career has been distorted by scores of films and books, wrote with lucidity and insight about art and his work. Undoubtedly, the “mystery” of the creative process, jealously protected by artists but also selectively cultivated by some art historians has been both a fascination and frustration for those extrinsic to the process. While artists have acknowledged the role of cognition in creativity they have exposed the intimacy of creativity. For example, in Las Meninas, Velasquez conceals the canvas he paints in an eloquent demonstration of spectatorship as an external activity. Similarly, yet with a strikingly distinct visual vocabulary, Pollock articulates the privacy of making art by denying the audience access to “entering” his painting. Even the ironic and subversive demise of authorship of the post-modern and electronic age acknowledges, at least indirectly, the value of the artist’s individual participation. However, many contemporary artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Hans Haacke, among others, have abandoned the hierarchic segregation of the inner realm of the creator and, by combining theoretical and studio practices, brought a reconciliatory tone to the processes of making art and analyzing it. Their works, which are often simultaneously artistic productions and critique of the artistic discourse, make use of visual and textual forms to expose the connection between looking and thinking as the essential attribute to both creating and understanding art.

What do we need to do to educate our students so that they will able to integrate their art in the contemporary visual and theoretical scene while preparing them, and others, to decipher artistic meanings and comprehend the cultural circumstances in which they exist? What should prevail in education? Is making art more important than writing about art? Is seeing believing or should the belief system be first defined textually? And if seeing is believing, when and how does the process of understanding begin? Neither making good art nor understanding why it is good is an easy task. The contemporary cross disciplinary, trans-cultural and hypertextual cultural and educational context may prove to be the fertile ground for discarding the proclaimed superiority of a specific practice and methodology, institutional configuration and identity and analyzing the transgressive implications of visuality beyond traditional boundaries. It is precisely this concern to establish a concordance between visual and theoretical literacy outside predetermined forums, yet without rejecting their validity, that prompted me to develop innovative assignments in my art history and theory courses. These assignments rejected the exclusive merit of passive memorization and detached recognition and aimed to offer the students a comprehensive journey of personal discovery by keeping both their eyes and brains open.

One of these projects has proven to be very successful. The assignment was entitled Art of the Week and it asked students to write a paragraph each week about a visual encounter, not an art work, that triggered in them a response whether visual, conceptual or otherwise. Each Thursday at the end of the class five students had to present their pick of the week to the class and a discussion would follow. The assignment was informal to allow students to truly be themselves while at the same time it provided the platform for the development of a correlation between thinking, looking, writing and discussing. Its positive impact was recognized by students in their evaluations. They commented on the influence this project had in building their confidence to express, in verbal and written form, their own opinions and be able to defend them in a meaningful discussion of divergent positions. I have read approximately 1300 Art of the Week assignments. Their content, style, and narrative were unexpectedly diverse. From the contrast of a black cat on the green lawn of the school courtyard to enigmatic ads, poetry or looking at a family photograph that sparked retroactive remorse, these weekly papers have initiated in students a process of independent perceptive and cognitive discovery in which they had to find a semantic form to the conceptualized meanings of their visual experience.

Let me return to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. The beauty of the restrained color palette that both reveals reality and at the same time acknowledges the artist’s interpretation is overwhelming. The fluid repetition of the geometrically defined pictorial space is enhanced by the visible brush strokes that are manipulated with extreme control and restrained emotion throughout the work. But is there a whole lot more about this painting that needs to be discovered beneath these overt stylistic and descriptive attributes? Cézanne’s concern for learning from nature to establish a viable relationship between abstraction and imitation was the essence of his formal and chromatic choices. His search for a novel visual language that would surpass the superficial perceptive value of Impressionism was a complex journey that combined and valued both studio and theoretical practices. Today, however, Cézanne’s paintings have acquired a new meaning. The daring novelty of his artistic quest has been tamed by the multiple visual and theoretical experimentations of this century. The abundant literature on his work and life and the astonishing number of exhibitions have forever tainted the way we look and think about his art. How can we find the truth? Can the tangible reality of Cézanne’s canvases, with idiosyncratic brush strokes and subtle textures, his writings and creative process be disjointed from the lengthy inventory of exhibitions and textual analyses of his work? Should these diverse voices, practices and visual testimonies be systematized in a hierarchic structure that would give supremacy to a single author and dominant methodology and diminish the value of others?

In an era when interdisciplinary approaches have been indispensable to analyzing the aesthetics of contemporary visual culture should the dividing boundaries between theory and practice continue to be feverishly defended? Is finding meanings in manipulating words more valuable than finding them in manipulating images? Can truth be found only in painting or solely in text? To bring a symbolic reconciliation between theory and practice in the academic environment the dialogue between Cézanne and Derrida must be inverted in a conceptual and graphic merry-go-round and the authorship of “truth in painting” re-attributed to the artist. Reversing chronological restrictions, I will end by offering a speculative response Cézanne might have had to this debate and let the artist have the last word about the truth in painting, but stated again in one of his texts: “Try to express yourself as logically as possible.”


2000 © Irina Costache

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