Art and Philosophy

Alain Badiou

Translated by Jorge Jauregui


Leandro Erlich

A bond that is forever affected by a symptom, one of oscillation, of throbbing.

From the very beginning there is Plato’s judgement ostracizing poetry, theatre and music. By and large the founding father of philosophy—a refined connoisseur of the arts no doubt—preserves, in The Republic, only military music and patriotic chants.

On the other hand, you find a pious devotion to art, a contrite bending of the concept, reasoned as technical nihilism, against the poetic word that alone proffers the world at the latent Openness of its own angst.

Yet, after all, Protagoras the sophist, singled out the apprenticeship of arts as the key to education. There was an alliance of Protagoras and Simonides the poet, which Plato’s Socrates attempts to thwart the casuistry and enslave the rational’s intensity to his own benefit.

An image comes to mind, an analogous matrix of meaning: philosophy and art are historically coupled the way the Master and the Hysteric coalesce in Lacan. You know how the hysteric confronts the master and says: “The truth speaks through my tongue, I am ‘there,’ and you, who knows, do tell me who I am.” And you surmise that whatever wisdom and subtleties lie in the master’s reply, the hysteric will let him know it is not as yet that, that her “there” evades the catch, that all should be resumed, and a lot of effort is required to please her. She thereby takes command over the master and becomes maîtresse du maître. As it is, art is always already there, addressing the thinker with the silent and scintillating question of its own identity. However, through constant invention—its metamorphosis—art dismisses whatever the philosopher has to say concerning its own self.

If the master of the hysteric balks at the amorous servitude, at the idolatry he must satisfy with an exhausting and forever disappointing production of knowledge, he then has no choice but to beat the hysteric. In the same vein the philosopher, with regard to art, is torn between idolization and censure. Either he will tell the young people, his disciples, that the core of a true manly education of reason consists in keeping aloof from the Creature, or he will ultimately concede that she alone—this opaque brilliance that bewitches—instructs you on the determinant where truth commands that knowledge be produced.

And since what is asked from you is to bind art and philosophy, it appears that, formally, the actual tie is brought about by two schemes.

The first one, which I term “didactic,” poses that art is incapable of truth, or that truth is altogether external to it. You should acknowledge, however, that art comes forward (as the hysteric does) under the coinage of effective truth, direct or naked truth. And this nakedness uncovers art as the pure “charm” of the true... More precisely: art is the semblance of a groundless and unsubstantiated truth, a truth exhausted in its being-there. Yet—and this is the full meaning of the Platonic process—you will reject this pretense, this seduction. The core of the Platonic controversy with regard to “mimesis” calls on art, not so much as imitation of things but as imitation of the effect of truth. And this imitation draws its strength from its immediate nature. Plato will then maintain that being captive of a direct image of truth “deviates from the deviation.” If truth can exist as charm, then we loose the strength of the dialectical task, of the slow elaboration that prepares the way back to the principle. It is then required to denounce art’s alleged direct truth as a false truth, as the semblance proper of the effect of truth. Such is the definition of art, and of art alone: being the charm of a semblance of truth.

It follows that art must either be condemned or considered in a purely instrumental way. Art, closely watched, can be what bestows the transient strength of semblance, or of charm, to a truth prescribed from “the outside.”  Acknowledged art must be under the philosophical surveillance of verities. A sensitive didactics, its purpose cannot be relinquished to immanence. The rule of art must be education. And the norm in education is philosophy: first knot of three terms.

From this perspective, the control of art is essential. Now, this control is feasible. Why? Because if the truth of which art is capable comes from the outside, if art is a sensitive didactics, it follows that—and this is paramount—art’s “good” essence looms, not in the work of art, but in its public effects. Rousseau argued that performance is made for the people, and its absolute qualities may be determined solely through its effects.

In the didactic scheme, art’s absoluteness is then under the control of the public effects of semblance, themselves standardized by an extrinsic truth.

This educational injunction is absolutely opposed by what I term the “romantic” scheme. Its argument is that art alone is capable of truth. And in this sense it accomplishes what philosophy cannot but indicate. In the romantic scheme, art is the real body of the true. Or what Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy designate as the literary absolute. It’s obvious that this real body is a glorious body. Philosophy could well be the secluded and unfathomable Father. Art is the suffering Son who saves and assuages. The genius is crucifixion and resurrection. Thereby art itself is the educator, since it teaches the power of infinitude lodged within the harrowing cohesion of form. Art delivers us from the subjective sterility of the concept. Art is the absolute as subject, it is the “incarnation.”

However, between didactic banishment and romantic glorification (a “between” which is not essentially temporal), there is, I think, a time of relative peace between art and philosophy. The question of art does not worry Descartes, or Leibnitz, or Spinoza. These great classics did not seem to have chosen between the roughness of a certain control and the ecstasy of allegiance.

Is it not Aristotle who subscribed to a sort of truce between art and philosophy? Yes, ostensibly there is a third way, the classical scheme, of which it is said, to begin with, that it “de-hysterizes art.”

The classical apparatus, as engineered by Aristotle, calls for two theses:

a) Art—as support of the didactic scheme—is incapable of truth, its essence is mimetic, it belongs to the register of the semblance.

b) This is not a serious matter (contrary to what Plato believes). It’s not important since art’s “destination” is by no means truth. Certainly, art is not truth, indeed it does not pretend to be, and therefore it is innocent. Aristotle relates art to something other than knowledge and so delivers it from the Platonic suspicion. This something—occasionally he names it “catharsis”—concerns the deposition of passions in a transfer on semblance. Art has a therapeutic function, not a cognitive or revealing one. Art does not take from theory but from ethics (in the broader sense of the word). It follows that the norm of art is its relevance over the treatment of the soul’s affections.

The main rules ascribed to art are directly inferred from the two theses of the classical scheme.

To begin with, the rule of art is to please. “Pleasing” is not a standard of opinion, a norm of the many. Art must please because “to please” points out the effectiveness of “catharsis,” the real coalescing of the artistic therapy of passions.

Then, the name of what “to please” refers to is not the truth. “To please” clings to that alone which, coming from a certain truth, is procured through identification. “Resemblance” to the truth is only required when it engages the art audience into “pleasing,” that is into a identification which organizes a transfer and therefore a deposition of passions. This fragment of truth is rather “what a truth constrains in the imaginary.” The imaginarisation of a certain truth, in that it is unballasted of all real, the classics called “verisimilitude.”

Finally, peace between art and philosophy thoroughly rests on the delimitation between truth and verisimilitude. So the classical axiom par excellence is “truth can at times not be verisimilar,” thereof enunciating the delimitation, while retaining the rights of philosophy “near” art. Philosophy confers for itself the possibility of not being verisimilar. The classical definition of philosophy is the non-verisimilar truth.

What is the price for this peace? No doubt, art is innocent, but the fact is it is innocent of all truth. That is, recorded in the imaginary. Strictly speaking, in the classical scheme, art is not a thought. It entirely fits its own act, or its public exertion. “Pleasing” constrains art to service. You can say this: from the classical perspective, art is public service. The State behaves accordingly both in the vassalage of art and artists in the Absolutist period and in the modern chicanery of subsidies. The State (except maybe the Socialist State, which is rather didactic) is, with regard to the tying that interests us, essentially classical.

Let’s recapitulate.

Didacticism, Romanticism, Classicism are the possible schemes of the tie between art and philosophy, the third term of this tie being the education of the subjects, particularly youth. In Didacticism, philosophy is bound to art as an educative surveillance in its extrinsic destination toward the true. In Romanticism, art accomplishes in the finitude all the subjective education of which the Idea’s philosophical infinitude is capable. In Classicism, art captures desire and educates its transfer by way of proposing a semblance of its object. Here philosophy is summoned in the guise of esthetics: it advises on the canons of “pleasing.”



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