Alain Badiou

Author’s Bio

I intend simply to propose a very general definition of the arts, and more precisely of contemporary arts. And, after that, a short definition of Drawing. These definitions draw their inspiration from a very beautiful and in fact fundamental poem of the American poet Wallace Stevens. The title of the poem is: “Description without Place.”

In a very simple and very short talk, it would be possible for me to say: This is my definition of art : Every work of art, especially every work in contemporary arts, is a description without place. An installation, for example, is the description of a set of things outside their normal place and normal relationship between them. So it is the creation of a place which dis(places) all things in it. A performance, or a happening, is a sort of vanishing succession of gestures, pictures, voices, so that the action of bodies describes a space which is strictly speaking outside itself. But what is a Drawing? A Drawing is a complex of marks. These marks have no place. Why? Because in a true Drawing, a creative one, the marks, the traces, the lines, are not included or closeted in the background. On the contrary, the marks, the lines—the forms, if you will—create the background as an open space. They create what Mallarmé names, “the empty paper which is protected by its whiteness.”

In the first case—the installation—the new place displaces all things in it; in the second case—the happening—the new things, the new bodies, displace the place. In the third—the Drawing—some marks create an inexistent place. As a result, we shall see, we have a description without place. So my general definition of arts is good, and I have apparently no reason for continuing my lecture, for I can propose a short definition of Drawing. There is a Drawing when some trace without place creates as its place an empty surface.

Fortunately, one point in the poem of Wallace Stevens surprises me; and I cannot stop my lecture without making myself clear about it.

The best thing probably is to read and to comment on some passages of the poem. First, the beginning:

It is possible that to seem—it is to be,
As the sun is something seeming and it is.

The sun is an example. What it seems
It is and in such seeming all things are.

So the artistic idea of a description without place is in a close relationship with the old philosophical question of being and seeming.  Or of being qua being and appearing—to be and to appear—appearing precisely in a place, in a tangible world. The sun is, and it is something seeming, and in Poetry, we must name “sun” neither the fact that the sun is, nor the fact that the sun seems, or appears, but we must name “sun” the equivalence of seeming and being, the inseparability of being and appearing. And finally, the equivalence of to exist and not to exist.

That is exactly the problem of Drawing. In one sense, the paper exists, as a material support, as a closed totality; and the marks, or the lines, do not exist by themselves: they have to compose something inside the paper. But in an other and more crucial sense, the paper as a background does not exist, because it is created as such, as an open surface, by the marks. It is that sort of movable reciprocity between existence and inexistence which constitutes the very essence of Drawing. The question of Drawing is very different from the question in Hamlet. It is not “to be or not to be,” it is “to be and not to be.” And that is the reason for the fundamental fragility of Drawing: not a clear alternative, to be or not to be, but an obscure and paradoxical conjunction, to be and not to be. Or, as Deleuze would say: a disjunctive synthesis.

This fragility of Drawing is its essential feature. And if we remember another famous sentence of Hamlet: “Frailty, thy name is woman,” we can perceive a secret relationship between Drawing and femininity.

I shall return in a moment to these points.

We have found here, in Wallace Stevens, a critic of two historical definitions of Beauty and Art. The first one is that real Beauty is always beyond appearances. So a work of art, as a creation with material means, is only a sign or a symbol of something infinite which is beyond its proper appearance. Appearing is only a passage to real being. Wallace Stevens summarizes this classical theory of Beauty when he writes: “Description is composed of a sight indifferent to the eye.” The eye, the concrete vision, is not in art the true sight, the real vision of Beauty. The real vision of Beauty is indifferent to the eye. It is an act of thinking. But Stevens does not agree, and I do not agree either. In the work of art, there is not the absolute dependence of appearing on a transcendent being. On the contrary, we have to fix a point where appearing and being are indiscernible. In Drawing this point is precisely the point, the mark, the trace, when it is hardly discernible from the white background.

Another conception of Beauty of art, more romantic than classical, is that Beauty is the sensitive form of the Idea. The work of art as a composition in appearing realizes an effective presence of the infinite, of the absolute Idea. It is not the question of going beyond seeming. The movement goes in the opposite sense: the Idea, the real being comes down in a material form and appears as Beauty.

But Wallace Stevens does not agree with this romantic vision and I do not agree either. Stevens may seem to agree, when he writes: “description is revelation.” Is not “revelation” a name for the coming down of the absolute Idea in the appearance of a beautiful form? But here, in the poem, it is not the case. Because the work of art, as description without place “is not the thing described.” So Beauty is not the sensitive form of the idea. The work of art is a description which has no immediate relationship with a real that would be outside the description, like in the romantic conception, the absolute Idea is outside its sensible glory.

For example, a contemporary Drawing is not the realization of an external motive. It is much more completely immanent to its proper act. A drawing is the fragmentary trace of a gesture, much more than a static result of this gesture. In fact, a romantic Drawing cannot be simply a drawing. There is always something else: heavy darkness, black ink, violent contrasts. A contemporary Drawing is without those sorts of effects. It is more sober, more invisible. The pure Drawing is the material visibility of invisibility.

We can sum up briefly:
1. The best definition for a work of art is: description without place.
2. This description is always a link between real being and seeming, or appearing.
3. This link is not purely symbolic. We do not need to go beyond appearances to find the Real. The description is not a sign for something that lays outside its form.
4. This link is not a pure revelation. It is not the coming down of the absolute Idea, or of the infinite, in a beautiful form. Appearing is not like a formal body of being. It is therefore necessary to consider a new link between appearing and being. Wallace Stevens writes:

It is an artificial thing that exists,
In its own seeming, plainly visible,

Yet not too closely the double of our lives,
Intenser than any actual life could be.

Our new task is to explain four features of the work of art as a description without place:
1. The description is “artificial thing that exists.” Artificiality. Drawing is something which is composed. It is the question of technology. Today the background can be a screen, and not a piece of paper, and the marks can be the visible projection of immaterial numbers.
2. The description is “in its own seeming.” There is an independent existence in appearances. Drawing must exist without any external explanation. And without external references.
3. But the description is not “too closely the double of our lives.” A true Drawing is not a copy of something. It is a constructive deconstruction of something, and much more real than the initial thing.
4. The description is “intenser than any actual life.” A Drawing is fragile. But it creates a very intense fragility. In short:
—First, being is purely a mathematical abstraction. It is, in any thing, the multiple without any quality or determination. Drawing seizes this definition by reducing any thing to a system of marks.
—Second, when a thing appears as a degree of intensity, we have nothing else than the existence of the thing in a world. A thing exists more or less, and the intensity has no relation with being, but only with the concrete world in which the thing appears. In Drawing, the world is symbolized by the background, pages, screen, or wall.
—Third, there is no question of imitation or of representation. The existence of a multiplicity is directly its appearing in a world, with a new measure of the intensity of this appearing.

Within this framework, we can reconstruct our theory of a work of art as a point where appearing and being are indiscernible.

I shall begin with two examples, a poetic one and an other in Drawing, about the same type of things: a music instrument, a guitar. Wallace Stevens has written a book under the title The Man with a Blue Guitar. What is a “blue guitar?” It is the poetical intensity of the thing “guitar” in the work of Stevens, in the artificial world created in language by Stevens. At the point of “blue guitar” there is no possible distinction between “guitar” as a word, “guitar” as a real thing, guitar as being, and guitar as appearing. Because this guitar, which appears in poems of Stevens, is the blue guitar. So we can say that with the blue guitar we have a poetical intensity in which being and existence are identical. That is probably the best definition of a work of art: in the description without place you have a sort of fusion of being and existence. That’s why Stevens writes:

The theory of description matters most
It is the theory of the word, for those
For whom the word is the making of the world.

Here the description is thought as the point inside the poetic language where we have a creation of the world. But if a world is created before us, we have no distinction between the appearing of the thing, its existence and its being. All that is included in the same intensity, the intensity of the blue guitar.

We can immediately transfer all that on the experience of Drawing. As you know, the guitar is something like a fetish in cubist painting at its beginning. It is a thing which appears like a new center of the composition in Picasso, Braque or Juan Gris. And, as a thing-of-drawing, it is a new way of existing for the true being of the thing. It is the creation of a guitar without separation between its being and its existence. Because in Drawing, a guitar is nothing else than its pure form. A guitar is a line, a curve.

You see that to say that a Drawing is a work of art has a precise meaning. It is a description without place which creates a sort of artificial world. This world does not obey the common law of separation between real being and appearances. In this world, or at least in some points of this world, there is no difference between “to be” and “to exist”; or between “to be” and “to seem,” to “appear.”

All this allows us to proceed in the direction of a relationship between Drawing and Politics. Classically, politics, revolutionary politics, is a description with places. You have social places, classes, racial and national places, minorities, foreigners and so on; you have dominant places, wealth, power… And a political process is a sort of totalization of different objective places. For example, you organize a political party as the expression of some social places, with the aim of seizing the state power.

But today, maybe, we have to create a new trend of politics, beyond the domination of the places, beyond social, national, racial places, beyond gender and religions. A purely displaced politics, with absolute equality as its fundamental concept.

This sort of politics will be an action without place. An international and nomadic creation with—as in a work of art—a mixture of violence, abstraction and final peace.

We have to organize a new trend in politics beyond the law of places and of centralisation of power. And in fact, we have to find a form of action where the political existence of everybody is not separated from its being, a point where we exist in so intense a fashion that we forget our internal division. Doing so we become a new subject.

Not an individual, but a part of a new subject.

Wallace Stevens writes about something like that at the end of a very beautiful poem with a strange title, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”:

Out of this same light, out of the central mind
We make a dwelling in the evening [air]
In which being together is enough.

Yes, we have to build a new dwelling, a new house, where “being together is enough.” But for that, we must change our mind (“out of the central mind”) and change the light. And for that, with the help of new forms of art, we must go into an action without places.

This is precisely the goal of the pure Drawing: to institute a new world, not by the strength of means, like images, painting, colors, an so on, but by the minimalism of some marks and lines, very close to the inexistence of any place. Drawing is the perfect example of an intensity of weakness.

Victory of fragility. Victory of feminity, maybe. In a Drawing, the “together” is only the together of some vanishing marks. “Together is enough.”

For these reasons we may perhaps speak of a politics of Drawing.

this piece originally appeared in lacanian ink 28, which is now sold out


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