Pictorial aphasia or the insistence on the blindness of words

for Spanish version

María de Mater O'Neill
November 23-25, 2004*
Art Premium Magazine, Vol.2-núm.10, September-October, San Juan, 2005.

"I think a well made painting irradiates, extends dimensions and gives them an ineffable space. This is very important, even though painters often ignore it. As a consumer of painting, as a painter, I believe that our great role is precisely to contribute the space that may be ineffable." [1]

I believe that painting is not defined by its materials or its properties as an object; it is defined by acts of speech. Therefore what is determined to be a painting (or not) is defined within the assertive enunciation. Its pictorial state resides within its meaning, such as letters in a word.

Roland Barthes acknowledged that the presence of meaning in the image is more imperative and immediate than in the written word. Language then, as I consider it here, goes beyond what we understand as an issue of words and falls into the nomad territories of discourse. I do not wish to say that painting is intent on being a system of meanings, where its function is to enunciate a message. Painting can be, and that is often what is desirable, an experience that adds to the personal history of the reader/spectator. It shifts from object to memory. The fact that it may be granted a meaning, immediately or after a while, does not rule out the possibility that even if discursive, it may still remain an image (what it was a priori). In the history of the alphabet we find that the ancestors of words are drawings. Many of these images were haptic and favored the sense of touch over that of sight; 19th century Braille became such an alphabet.

"Language speaks through us instead of us speaking through language."[2]

Language is not natural, it is a system created in relation to what lies beyond our bodies. That sense of being and consciousness is acquired by our organic reality and, at the same time, that corporeality is the vehicle of an understanding of the world (that which lies outside of us). Did "verb become man" or is it "made in its image and likeness"? The relationship between language and image is a complex game of musical chairs in which there is no clear complement, opposition or codependency. The obvious references -Pollock's "I am nature" and Cézanne's "painting is nature"-are performative enunciations of being. They are discourses which reside somewhat outside of language and are closer to action than to enunciation.

Words enshroud the myth of precision but we know that words unto themselves are inconsistent with this promise. I say this in reference to what Derrida calls the "landscape of meaning": words contain vestiges of meaning from other words. Words are plural. Their counterpart here being color, in its unfocused quality and in no relation to its presupposed messages. Words and color are both unstable by nature, that is their strength, and they seduce because they can be deceiving in their ambiguity. Here we demonstrate what has been said: the deception never takes place because we participate and desire the unfocused act, because there is an understanding that there never was a commitment to what lies on the surface.

"The fact that you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there."

I associate painting with action and distance it from speech but Cézanne baffles me when he writes to a friend a year before his death to tell him "I owe the truth in painting and I will tell it."[3] I understand that "I owe" is a promise, an act of speech that Derrida terms "performative,"[4] and that truth and painting are the same thing[5] as are God and liberty. Nevertheless, the "performative" act of saying "I will tell it", this way of speaking using the power of discourse, seems untranslatable to me. A painter doesn't say "I will paint it" but promises to act within language. It is strange that Cézanne, who resisted mediation and whose vision lies precisely in his refusal of a system of representation, would use the same system to enunciate an action. Could it be that the apparent contradiction disappears when we understand that "I will paint it" would be representing nature? Cézanne simultaneously performs and describes an action[6] without granting it a truth value[7].

Color, like the scream, may become a coded system but not unto themselves, since neither is language. This is precisely why a part of teaching painting in art school has to do with how to educate an artist in the long and complex painterly tradition of transforming expression into language and, therefore, accomplish the desirable message.

Some theoreticians have traditionally assigned color, gesture, scream and posture, among other bodily expressions, to the right brain hemisphere and as interlocutors of what we receive from the nervous system. On the other hand, language (and the line, the brushstroke-- its counterparts in painting), which is also learned, is assigned to the left hemisphere of the brain. I consider both to be learned behavior because what we receive as knowledge through our bodies is a part of the reflection produced on par with being in life and in the world.

Deleuze stated that language does not necessarily operate through code or for that matter, expression through resemblance. He thought that certain autonomy could exist in language because of its mimetic capacity and also believed in the existence of an analogy, by way of isomorphism, that produced an equivalent to the referent. I disagree with this idea because non-truth in painting is precisely due to its being the equivalent of a referent. It is not that I dismiss the teaching of codification in pictorial education but I consider it suspect due to its homogenization and binary character as a result of this conversion. Hence, the persistence in codifying painting which draws from narrative viruses and, in our particular historical context, breeds the grand, paternalist narratives of Oller, Frade, Tufiño and Roche. The act of the hand (of the painter, exclusively), the primacy of the material (pigments on canvas), and the exclusive function of conveying a message (that of the painter, as interlocutor of truth), are irremediably attached to a manner of making. As a result, all possibility of ambiguity, blurredness and active participation of the reader/spectator is cast aside. The painting remains a closed object, hanging on a wall, with all the verticality that this implies. It grants no other possibility than a reading of painting as an Adamic intention of the painter, who has to power to name and influence as many objects as living beings with the act of determining with the word.

In this reduction of painting, where does the autonomy of art stand? Where are the Marxist reflections, the aura of which Heidegger spoke of, the differentiation between a urinal as a porcelain object and as a work of art

"If you cannot commit yourself to our message, I don't want you out there."[8]

The bodily act of holding your hand up and pointing out could be analogous to truth in painting. To aim is not to hold on to what is indicated but to make it visible to others and compel them to adjust their gaze, different to that of the one who is aiming. Pointing out with the hand is a catalyst of pluralistic vision. Like words, it too contains traces of other gestures: all bodies and their rhizomatic relationships make themselves equally visible to that which is pointed out. The meaning given to this object by the one who points it out has no predominance over the others who have adjusted their gaze. Even though this act of aiming could contain a message(s), it is a shared experience a priori. Would this then make my proposal "I owe the truth and will point it out" possible? Is it the same? To point out and to say imply an experience beyond our bodies. It is otherness. If we were made in the "image and likeness", an image of the referent that is, at the same time, representative of the referent evoking notions of mimesis, God, the truth of truths, then we are simultaneously truth and the representation of truth. We become "real" and "constructed" at the same time. Therefore, the verb is not only language because it resides in action. "The verb became man", implies, as in Sartre, that man is in his actions (the body in its performativity).

Obviously I resent the assumption that painting is a lexis, a set of expressions employed by a painter. Painting is ineffable, a word that does not contain words for its definition, it is "nothing" in the same way that the "I" of the Cyclops named itself "Nobody".

"I will point out the ineffable painting"

* Third essay, part of a series about color, culture, language and urban thinking.
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1. Le Corbusier. Vida y obra de Le Corbusier, http://www.arquitectura.com/historia/protag/corbu/indice.asp
2. Florian Cramer. Language, a virus?, http://www.digitalcraft.org/
3. To Émile Bernard, October 23, 1905.
4. Jacques Derrida. La verdad en Pintura, Paidos, 2001, Argentina. Original publication, La vérité en peinture, Flammarion, Paris, 1978
5. This is why I emphasize the use of Cézanne's "in painting" as opposed to "in the painting" because these imply two separate things. The translator of the book La verdad en Pintura (The Truth in Painting), points out Derrida's wordplay: In French, "en peinture" means "in painting" but may also be translated as "in appearance".
6. John Langshaw Austin. How to do Things with Words, Harvard University Press; Second edition (September 1, 1975), Cambridge.
7. John Lyons. Semantics,Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press, (1977),Cambridge.
8. Quote from CJ, a character from the television program «The West Wing» (NBC Network).


©2008 - María de Mater O'Neill