What Little Art Does

We want to argue here that art does much (is historically important) by doing very little. We will be talking about something like the “maximum of the minimum” that art does. And of course, we will want to give some relevance to this discussion by addressing “why art?”

By “art”, I really just have the conventional notion in mind, ie, what we go to museums to see (and not more romantic or “motivational” definitions). We are talking about something that is known to have a very limited effect and also, so one would presume, a highly limited effect, ie, a “transcendental” or a “theoretical effect”. Honestly speaking, we don’t expect art to “move the soul”, not in the way that music or film does — yet nonetheless it does something. Yet isn’t there the sense that art a museum is something like “pure art”, in that it, in its minimalism, gets at the most basic — and I am being vague here — action of art, without “over-reading”? This is the intuition that I want to develop here. So this is why we want to think about “art” in this precise sense: our intuition is that art forms the basis, as a kind of pure disturbance, for the kind of figural “isomorphisms” that we’ve been talking about.

Just to provide another impression of what I want to talk about, I have a few drafts (I mean, scraps, they won’t ever be finished) in front of me, one of which is called “History of Confusion”, ie, as opposed to the “History of Love” which had been our concern for the past month or so. This confusion is not the confusion before the onset of clarity with the figures and with isomorphism, but rather the confusion that is always alongside figures, either before or after, the essential confusion of figures. In other words, confusion as event  — and this is a big deal, to me, if only judging by the metric of just how many earlier ideas (a whole month) it seems to overturn.


We do not, however, want to start anew in this transition from history of love to a history of confusion, but rather, many of the older concepts continue to remain useful — in particular this notion of “exploding an equivalence class”, which we associate with “preference”. In fact, we sense that Keats’s La Belle Dame is headed precisely in this direction: starting with a “history of love”, with the Belle Dame, we move towards events which are in some sense “identical” but also somehow emptier or more hollowed out, perhaps more alien, yet somehow still “the same”.

Now, it’s not really that, with the history of confusion, we are moving towards more “abstract” accomplishments. If anything, the events, in this movement, are drawing farther and farther away until they become either barely or almost graspable. The feeling is that, with love, we are talking about events that have existence only because they are associated with, well, the world, with what could have been, with psychology, and so on. So that love itself feels surprisingly full even though though at the heart of love lies art — I’m saying that the fullness of art is a distraction, at least to us — it distracts us from the real forces of history.

Of course, we are not saying that art is at the “essence” of love — it’s not a matter of pealing back the layers. If we say that art is the purity of love then we are not saying that it’s possible to arrive at art through some methodical process of purification. It’s almost the opposite, we are saying that love is always disturbed by or troubled by a purity that it cannot turn down, or that love may always lead towards art. Another consideration — in contrast to love that has always been around, art would be something like the specificity of love.

Maybe this makes some sense too, yet another draft I have before me is called “Banal explosions”, ie, “Banal crises”, the banality (rather than the excitement, the highly personal nature of) radical shifts, dis- and re-connects, and so on.


The starting point is love — love, as we know, is related to (1) a kind of fragmentation (ie, the point-by-point of isomorphism) and (2) the idea of preference. Preference itself is a blasting open of equivalence classes, it is the insight into the other alongside the realization that I can be undercut — so that, basically, I cease falling back to my established categories with the knowledge that I myself am categorizable and that certain notions undercut these categories(Our tone here is, indeed, blase, we are talking about “banal crises”.)

We are talking about something like the geometric transformations of love. It’s not, of course, the case that love is essentially geometric. Purity is perhaps a deceptive word to use when we say, “art is the purity of love”, and this is because love always comes before purity, the impure comes before the pure. And we shouldn’t attempt here, either, to categorize all these geometric movemetns either. Because what’s really interesting here is not the geometric exchange but rather something like the “downward” movement of purity, which is something like the limits of the human, the limits of that which can powerfully affect us. And this is something like a min-maxing here: the farthest that we can go and still feel — that’s the point we’re after.


Actually, let’s not stray too far — we are talking about something very precise here, namely, the exchange of concepts, what Paul De Man called the “banal play of the signifier”. TBC


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