Can it be that, in 2012, in Paris, an important book by a very important author is passing under the radar of public opinion?
Judging by the press's reaction to Jean-Claude Milner's latest text, Malaise dans la peinture (A Malaise in Painting), published by Editions Ophrys last June, that seems to be the case -- not one article, not one review in all the major papers without exception, a perfect, deafening silence I leave it to others to explain but that I wish to break here.
The "malaise" in question is the one Milner thinks has opposed "painting" and "paintings" for the past few decades. For a long time, he explains, painting and paintings were in step with one another, synonyms in harmony, painting refracted in paintings, and paintings affirming painting.
Whether expressed in Artistotle's categories (painting being a genus, of which paintings were the species), or in Platonic language (the idea and its reflection, its more or less inadequate shadow) this harmony was established, if not pre-established and, including the Balzacian parable of the unknown masterpiece, broached no exceptions.
Except, the age of modernity arrived, and with it a heretofore unknown disconnect which presents this new and strange figure: the painter devoted to painting, not this painting or that, but the absolute painting or the painting of all paintings, or even the last painting -- the painter who in other words so reveres his own painting that, like those fanatics willing to sacrifice all so their idol might live and triumph, he banishes the very idea of the "great painting" or the painting that "merits being viewed," even the painting, period, from his universe.
The affair, told in detail by the former Maoist who, true to the command of a Bratslav Grand Rabbi, seems once and for all to have refrained from growing old, took shape upon the stage of this first French Revolution, from 1789 to 1793, which provided its actors with the priceless gift of a History which, for the first time, was conjugated in the present tense.
It falls under the index of a proper noun, a name presently held in little regard, that of the Convention member Jacques-Louis David who, in two works or, to be more exact, one (The Death of Marat), and a study for a work (the sketch of Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold) captured the bond of fire that ties this burgeoning question of politics to that of execution.
And everything plays out, really, around the incredible instant when David, sensing the incipient failure of this bet on the part of his contemporaries that depended upon an ultimate execution (either that of Marat at the hand of Charlotte Corday, or that of Citizen Capet by the Convention) to establish an order where the very idea of putting someone to death would finally become impossible (speaking beings continuing to be and to speak without the necessity of killing one another), and, moreover, sensing his own dream crumble, the dream he had singularly nourished and that held, as a point of doctrine, that perception is, today, politics -- everything plays out around this instant when David sees the "golden nail" from which his two works hang fall. And, consequently, the tie that held together his paintings and painting severed and, thus, modernity established.
I haven't room here to enter into the details of the demonstration.
I can only recommend, for example, the sparkling pages where one sees, all the way to David's attempt, the portrait we look at as opposed to the painting of History that, if it seeks to be viewed, never once looks back at us.
Or those pages where the author concentrates on the closed eyes of Marat in his bathtub, on the elusive eyes of the condemned widow Capet, in profile, in her cart, and the fact that, for the first time perhaps, politics perceives men.
Or those pages where the passage on La pensée sauvage springs forth, expressing the Levi-Straussian incomprehension of non-figurative art; or Foucault's lines describing the tableau, Las Meninas, without saying anything about its actual painting, or the case of a Merleau-Ponty, who can't say enough about the painting but, contrary to Foucault, isn't really concerned with the plurality of paintings that seem to be its scintillating by-product. All of this reinforces his demonstration and lends this enigmatic rigor that is the mark of Milner's prose.
What I can say, though, is that this brief and compact book casts new and oh how precious light upon this "question of contemporary art" that, for the past century, has incessantly fed universal chatter.
What is a great painting ? An image, or an idea? An object, or a process? Is the task of the painter to interpret, to transform, or to experience the world? Do they paint to show, or to tell? And in order to perceive what they paint, must one use the eye or the mind? What is it, incidentally, to see? Is it really a question of vision? Of how one looks? Where does this feeling come from, that one has, faced with some works, that the gaze is absent? And this promise that paintings no longer keep, this demand for a look they don't always satisfy any more, where does it go? Films? Photography? The «statements» of one ? The :performances" of the other ? Or this evanescent art that, like the burned book of the previously mentioned kabbalist of Bratslav, need not exist in order to be? The merit of Jean-Claude Milner's work is to give these questions the era blindly and often confusedly asks their substance. And, if only to say that, I wanted to offer this brief taste of his work.