Jacques Derrida’s riddle

O right, he was maybe rightfully accused of philosophical sophistry, obscurantism and … nihilism (it’s amazing, that in the post-modern reality ‘nihilist’ still sounds for some like an insult…) and it’s true that, as skillful thinker he is, as awkward writer/ author he happens to be… History of philosophy, art and even literature knows dozens of cases of those very good artists/philosophers/critics and quite poor writers, whose texts ‘taste’, at best, like a dry sole of an old boot… Yet some of the names became quite famous just because the deceiving esotericism of their work – as the public, especially that more ‘initiated’ one seems to like being ‘challenged’ by extremely obscure messages… And less they understand (or they think they do) the more they admire the point of view… But lets leave it…

Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) – French philosopher, most famous for his methodology of the ‘deconstruction’ of a text (philosophical, literary), but he is vitally interested in making statements on aesthetics and art theory/critique. What appears to be his most attractive catch-concept is the strongly displayed and proved by applying a special technique (‘Deconstruction’ per se) conviction that in the world of human phenomena there is no stability of meaning-s, there are no absolute ‘truths’ or ruling ‘Ideas’ (rejecting Platonism – and consequently a big chunk of modern philosophy based on that, like Phenomenology) and popular in deciphering opposites such as ‘good’-‘evil’ are ‘violent hierachies’ which tend to shut up possible interpretations. Derrida longs to reach ‘b e y o n d’ Good and Evil (here Nietzsche’s influence is quite clear) – whatever that conceptual extremism implies, even if it would mean to destroy all possibility of clear communication between an author and a reader, a creator and a receiver… or is it, maybe, a painful labour to deliver a completely new in its quality connection between humans, free from all simplifications? …

As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene.he famously said.


Consequently, deconstruction opens up a text/ a message by ‘crushing’ it into multiple, equally valid ‘readings’ and several meanings. With all that fluidity, ambiguity and lack of stability any unity and communicative power of a text is a matter of its internal logic and ‘metaphysics presence’… But – what does it mean???… And one can hear a ‘deconstructor’ saying: – That can ‘mean’ many things… Don’t expect to get a peace of mind just because somebody gives you an easy, ‘accurately’ sounding answer.

Language, the most powerful code of communication among humans and one of the favourite themes of the modern philosophy (a separate branch of ‘philosophy of language’ has developed in 20th century becoming an important part of Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Existentialism, Deconstruction) – it’s language – spoken, written, visual, based on signs, notes, based on … silence that will remain a center of attention for people of thought in this new era, simply because we automatically associate ‘language’ with ‘meaning’ and ‘connection’ and both seem to be extincting phenomena at the beginning of 21st century…

What is Derrida’s view on the visual language of fine art? It’s been most comprehensively unfolded in his “The Truth Of Painting” (1978) series of essays/meditations on the meaning of art and it was Cezanne’s claim: I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you that had provoked him… Here, quite naturally, questions about the truth and meaning in painting/art became questions about truth and meaning of its ‘language’ – visual/pictorial, intentional/conceptual (what stands ‘behind’, what was the artist’s intention?) and the language of the critique. And, as one may easily guess, the founder of deconstruction doesn’t believe that we can ever arrive at any decision as what would constitute the ‘truth’ and the ‘meaning’ in art. There is no possibility of making any authoritative critical statement or aesthetic judgement, at all – let alone being able to render and/or ‘read’ the ‘truth’ itself (whatever it nay be) in the work of art.

Never mind what anything means – so-called meanings in art won’t give it a full presence – full presence is impossible, never try to put what you see in neat ‘drawers’ (categories, genres), never feel safe when attempting to decipher art in a context (cultural, social, personal – of an artist, psychological etc…), never take any critique, or even a dozen of them as an authoritative ‘sentence’ on a particular artistic piece…

That view corresponds well with, partially intuitive yet firm declarations of many artists that: Two qualities of a work of art? It must be indescribable and must be inimitable. P.A. Renoir, All good painting inexplicably has got free of all possible explanations. Frank Auerbach, Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain. Georges Braque and so on, and so on…

Yet, we still want and need to know “WHY?” – the big question… You can produce works of genius – but – why? The ever-lasting game of ever-confronting powers – the power of demanding the expression of the ‘truth’ and the ‘meaning’ and the power (artist’s) to remain silent, or even unconscious, protecting and respecting those mysterious activities that make art happen… And that game of tension and struggle has been shaping the ‘soul’ of art (again, whatever it may be) through decades and appears to be especially formative for the art of today and tomorrow.

About kasia

Born in Poland. Lives in Ireland, Cork. Visual artist. View all posts by kasia

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