In Conversation

Jay Bernstein with Joan Waltemath

Video by FusionLabs.

Jay Bernstein is Chair and University Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. He received his BA in 1970 from Trinity College in Religion and his PhD in 1975 from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous books and articles on philosophy; his recent books on art include The Fate of Art and Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting.

Waltemath (Rail): In reading your recent book Against Voluptuous Bodies, which came out in 2006,I was initially drawn in by your involvement with the philosophy of Theodor Adorno.Which of his books made the deepest impression on you?

Bernstein: Aesthetic Theory. It answered a troubling question, namely, why was it that in the European philosophical tradition, all these characters thought so hard about art? From Kant and Hegel, to Nietzsche, all the way through to Heidegger, and then the Marxists—why Marxists, of all people? “The world’s going to hell, the Revolution has been defeated, the Proletariat is in disarray, let’s talk about art!” That seems crazy! This craziness had been bothering me from the get go. I was convinced that there had to be something more than fighting the bourgeois on their own turf, and that’s what I began to find in Adorno. Adorno pitched art in the center of what it was for a Marxist to think about the modern world, to think about the nature of modern experience, about human embodiment, about the acknowledgement and remembrance of suffering. For him, modernist art was about those things. And that was what motivated me to write The Fate of Art.

Rail: How did Against Voluptuous Bodies come about?

Bernstein: One of the problems with The Fate of Art, and what the critics most complained about, was that there was virtually no art in it. Maybe this was an oversight! A former student of mine, Michael Newman, called me up on a June afternoon inviting me to give a lecture at the Slade School of Art. And then, just at the end of the phone call, he said, “Oh, and by the way: You ought to try to use some slides.” “Some slides?” I got off the phone and went into a blind panic: I’m a philosopher; I don’t know anything about slides or talking about pictures in the dark to an unseen audience! The panic lasted for weeks. I was ravaging my bookshelves, trying to find something that I could talk about. But then in the midst of this panic, I read TJ Clarke’s essay “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism,” and I was utterly taken with it. For one thing—at that moment, appearing where it did, when it did, in the journal October, in 1994—its claim was that Abstract Expressionism is a past that we have not yet gotten over. He threw down the gauntlet to critics of Modernism. He said that Modernism was dead—but not quite dead enough to get beyond it. And I thought that this was a startling and powerful argument, yet wrong in some of its basic assumptions.

Rail: You really take TJ Clarke to task in your book.

Bernstein: I do. The difference between us comes to this: he wants to cash out his claims about what particular works mean in terms of class history and politics as cultural forces. And I think that in order to account for how and why we care about modernist paintings we require an historically charged account of aesthetic experience: modernist paintings are complex sensuous particulars that eliminate from their comprehension any and all ideas, interpretations, conceptual understandings. They are individuals that cannot be understood in terms of anything but their inner complexion; they demand to be experienced. So Clark accuses Abstract Expressionism of a certain “vulgarity,” which signifies two things for him: a kind of fervid deathliness, one befitting an art surviving the death of art, and a petite bourgeois individualism. For me that vulgarity is a form sublimity, it is what it takes to make compelling sensuous particulars, particulars that can only be engaged by being experienced in their direct sensuous fullness, in a world that no longer regards individual experience and its objects as mattering. Experience is no longer a domain of authority, but one of private consumption—each to their own taste! Modernism would rather die than surrender to taste.
Rail: In the beginning of the book you lay out an argument using Descartes and Pieter de Hooch, a 17th Century Dutch painterthat for me was a real hook. It sets up your position on Modernism, but also it was something that I had never connected with the notion of Modernism.

Bernstein: I think even for me it’s true to say that that beginning clarified everything—even things that I had done already came into a clearer perspective. There’s been something that has bothered me my entire philosophical life: It is the moment (in the Meditations) when Descartes takes a piece of wax and brings it next to the fireplace; he watches as it changes, and he sees every one of its sensible features—color, taste, sound, feel, smell, size, shape—change. Then he issues a challenge: if every single one of its sensible features changes, then how is it the same piece of wax? And he says, roughly, “Ah well, we have to realize that those sensible features do not truly belong to the wax, and that really the wax is nothing but extension and shape, hence nothing but geometry and number.” It is a shocking moment. The entire sensory, visible world disappears in two pages. I’m always upset when I read this passage, and I’m always amazed when other people aren’t upset too. What Descartes thinks he is doing here is preparing the way for mathematical physics to be the true language for describing the physical world. And indeed, that is, in a way, what has happened. The disappearing piece of wax is an allegory of modernity, of how modern rationality dissolves the world. So, the same way in which Descartes makes the sensible piece of wax disappear into number, exchange value makes everyday objects disappear in their concreteness. Money, exchange value, can become everything while the concrete things in their reality disappear. That’s terrifying. And I think you cannot understand painting or modern art at all unless you take seriously that the modern rationality that creates modern science, that creates the capitalist economy, that creates bureaucratic rationality, needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those things.

That’s half the story that I try to tell. Here’s the other half: At the very moment that Descartes is making the world safe for mathematical physics, de Hooch, a contemporary of Vermeer, is trying to show how a wholly material world can be a perfectly adequate human, secular home. His realism depicts material reality as intrinsically satisfying, as, if only for a moment, a modest, domestic, feminine, materialist utopia. His realism is a material picturing of the material given! So I set the book up as a contrast between those two impulses and take for granted that the Cartesian impulse is the one that’s winning, that the drift of the modern world is toward abstraction, and modernist art, through the kind of experience it provides, is a critique of that abstraction. My vision of the history of modern art is like watching a realist painting literally disintegrating back into its elements until it becomes—what? The path to Conceptual art would be a perfect equation of how art lost the world. Conceptual art is like Cartesianism in art. Oi!!

This is why the notion of the medium is so important in modernist painting: the authority of the material practice of painting is exactly what separates it from the grasp of the concept. What realism shares and communicated to modernism is the idea of producing works of visual attention that are grounded in the material features of the practice. Modernism emerges when art discovers that it’s not in competition with other domains for perpetuating certain ideas or ideals—mental stuff. Rather what art discovers—however subliminally—is that it has its own unique area, and that area is sensuous particularity. That the very idea of visual attention—which is what art has always done, create objects of visual attention—has as its inner lining, its rumbling presupposition the thought that it is the material features of the practice that are the source for what holds attention. Art has always known this; it’s just that modernism lives and dies by it.

Rail: When painting is no longer seen as representational, but rather categorical, how can a discourse be embodied in it?

Bernstein: The short answer: discourse is not embodied in it. However, our immediate experience of works is categorical—an experience of the absence of experience—which why criticism comes to play such a large role in the circulation of modern art. Modernism needs criticism not to teach us how to experience works—they do just fine on their own—but rather, to help us makes sense of our experience. The longer answer runs like this: What painting provides is an account of our conviction in and connection to the world through our visual experience. With modern art it became natural to suppose that the authority of painting had to be its capacity for demonstrating how objects have a more than instrumental call upon our capacity to live with them: that thought is fully there in Dutch realism and the tradition of the still life. Just by placing physical things in the visual environment, and by purifying them of any uplifting or instrumental or merely tasty—eye candy—features, and letting them just be there for our visual inspection, art returns the world to us. But as modern painting explored that belief, it turns out that the representational moment actually was not necessary to explain the capacity of the canvas before us to hold our visual attention. Painting could, just by its use of color or line or pigment, construct objects of visual attention not only with as much, but with even more claim on our attention than everyday objects. I think of Van Gogh’s chair as a particularly eloquent moment connecting the dignity of the mere thing with the dignity of paint-on-canvas, each lending its authority to the other. And it’s the surprise of non-representational art that gives art, in the very moment of its so-called existential emptiness—not being about the world, just about the appearing of the world—its power. Philistines hate art for that moment of emptiness.

Rail: I’ve always been very skeptical about the idea of painting being solely about visual perception. The delegitimization of the ability to perceive through all our senses is really a kind of death knell for painting, because painting is something that you have to perceive with your entire body.

Bernstein: I’m not Greenberg! I think the whole debate about painting being merely optical versus a whole-body experience is something of a red herring: I doubt there are any paintings that can be seen with the eyes alone. And yet, there is a step that I haven’t mentioned, which is the different way I think about the meaning of the medium. When I think of art as retreating to its medium, I do not think of the material medium of art as merely artistic stuff. One of the things I try to say over and over again is that the material medium of art is a stand-in for material nature; medium specificity is the way in which the natural world, the very world that Descartes decimated (and Conceptual art surrendered) survives. So take the obvious example: one of the things that Descartes gets rid of is color! Well I take Matisse’s The Red Studio to be an argument for how a field of color can be itself sufficiently authoritative to be an object of ongoing visual attention—which is to say something that is more than the mere surface of things, more than decoration. Only through this painting, here and now, is red offered a kind of autonomous dignity, and by extension dignity is returned to our material world beyond its instrumental, calculative, commercial aspects.

Rail: Matisse shows us how red becomes spatial in his painting in a way that it shouldn’t, against all formal rules. Everything should be flat, but he allows it to create the whole world of the studio.

Bernstein: Everything in the studio becomes properties of the redness. The red, instead of being the property of objects—this is the perversity of the painting—is the object, and the ordinary objects become properties of redness. The chair on the right becomes a little yellow crease in the red substance of the world. Matisse transforms what had been regarded as merely decorative, as disposable, as almost irrelevant, into the substance of the world. Modernism gives back to us all that continually gets lost, erased, covered over by modern rational practices—stuff we cannot live without. It’s not as if we can live without the redness of apples and fevers and blushing and blood; redness belongs to the substance of the life-world, the world as lived. Because we are embodied physical creatures, we are as much natural as social. If I have a hobbyhorse in this book, it’s that I cannot bear trying to turn art into language, semiotics, pure meaning, at the cost of its sensible-material aspects. Modern art really is an attempt to give back authority to both objects and body.

Rail: Where did the notion of art as a reflection of its times originate?

Bernstein: Hegel said that philosophy was its time comprehended in thought, and that art, up until the modern age, was the way cultures made sense of their fundamental commitments through images. What he had in mind was the sculptures, temples, and tragedies of ancient Greece, or the churches and church art of the late Middle Ages. These were literally the ways in which those societies reflected on what their ultimate commitments were. So art—if it wasn’t to be a bit of ideology—must be “absolute” in Hegel’s sense: a gathering and expression of a society’s idea of itself. And it is this idea of art as absolute that T.J. Clark is hitting upon when he discusses abstract expressionism with respect to the death of art. Society, Hegel argues, can no longer think seriously about itself by making pictures; modern society is too inward on the one hand and too abstract on the other to be condensed into a picture. I think that’s probably true.

But this just raises an issue that Hegel evades, namely, art can only be dead if there is no longer a need for art. Hegel thinks that to think about art is to think about the need for art. My question, Adorno’s question, is: Is there now a need for art? What is the need for modern art? The question of need is how history and art connect. And the thought that I inherit from Adorno is that we desperately need what Modernist art has to offer: art provides unique sensuous particulars that give to us an emphatic experience; which matters since we are the kind of beings who cannot live without emphatic experience of the world.

What I mean by emphatic experience of the world is that there are certain concrete experiences that provide on-going orientation in life, that life takes on a certain kind of meaning only in the light of those experiences. A simple example: I fall in love. That’s an experience, but it’s an experience that shapes everything that comes after it and went before. Modernist art explicitly seeks to give us an experience of the absence of experience from modern life by providing semblances of emphatic experience. An easy example here is Barnett Newman. A Newman zip rehearses the beginning of a world by dividing light and dark, by making empty oneness into articulate twoness, by introducing identity and difference. So a zip is the little bit of syntax that makes the surrounding color-fields semantically meaningful. That’s the minimum condition for us having a world and being able to live in it as up-right human beings, eyes front, with a left-right orientation. Because the horizontal pictures don’t provide an idea of the upright body, they really do not work in the way the great vertical zip paintings do.

As I read him, for Walter Benjamin the problem of modernity is that there has been this loss of experience. He says, not only have we lost emphatic experience, but we’re now getting to the point where we’re losing the memory of that loss. In writing the history of the 19th century, Benjamin was writing the history of that loss before we forget it completely. Benjamin talks about warfare in that way, that warfare used to be something that was experienced by people not totally governed by generals behind the lines or politicians thousands of miles away. For Benjamin the trauma suffered by participants of the First World War was living through something they could not experience. The role of experience gets replaced by technology, by bureaucracy, by the market, by all these things until there’s no place for us as individuals in the world at all. Without experience, we are in some literal sense dead to the world.

Rail: It’s a horrifying trajectory and the recounting of that trajectory makes it even more horrifying. Just to consider a way into reflection: you talk about the unsettled score between art and science in historical terms from the beginning of the Enlightenment. How would you frame that in contemporary terms in view of the art and technology movement?

Bernstein: I mention the worry about digital art in my introduction: if art is medium-specific, and digitalization potentially tokens the loss of the medium, then it means the end of art as we know it. That seems to me horrific. One artist who seems to be asking the right kind of questions and has the requisite artistic ambition is Jeff Wall. He thinks that art cannot survive without large visual claming. He wants his pictures to take you up and thrill you and have iconic power. You’re going to remember those images. Now you may question how successful he is in addressing issues of politics, war, death, history, poverty, etc. But he is asking himself the question of how technology can be put to authentic artistic ends, and offering the structure of a solution. He is saying that art can authenticate itself, even with a new technology, even with the idea that the image has been manipulated to hell in every possible way, even under conditions in which the original scene is totally fabricated. Everything you see is a construction; yet he wants to drag us back to the claims of the world, and he’s always asking after those claims: of the natural world, of cityscapes, of the war dead, of the tedium of everyday life. The way he recycles those moments in his constructions means that there are ways within a wholly technological format that you can try to resist technology.

Why I like the example of Jeff Wall is because, although the reflection on technology is there, you can engage with what is before your eyes. He lets the concrete image carry autonomous significance, and it feels as if there is a moment of naïveté in doing that. Even more, his use of size, the light boxes, the stark concreteness of the images, and the sheer beauty of so many of them should trigger the claim that he thinks that despite every possible form of mediation and construction, art must live through and on a moment of immediacy; and it is in his insistence on the necessity of immediacy that his hyper-sophistication and naiveté meet. It is why I think of him as a modernist.

Rail: One thing that your thoughts about Jeff Wall allowed me to reflect upon is how the move into formlessness and this period of conceptual art was ushered in with a very anti-formal agenda. The belief that art was not a language left a whole generation of artists completely unskilled in the formal attributes of art.

Bernstein: It does seem to me a deep and generational problem. I remember talking with Tom Butter when I was in his studio, and he confessed, that he was brought up in the television age and that meant he was brought up with skepticism about the image. This is certainly part of our culture and it seems to me it’s an acid skepticism. Unless it can be gotten past, those questions that you’re trying to ask are never going to be answered. As long as we think that the image is something that is essentially duplicitous, essentially a lie, essentially mere surface, essentially manipulated by the other, essentially a deceit even when it shows our own experience—if we can’t allow the image in at all without all that baggage, then we’re doomed. What Wall beautifully does is hold those two moments together: he completely acknowledges the duplicity of the means. At the same time, he insists that the image gets beyond those means, is not soiled by them, so that we learn to return the image to its full authority of pleasure and meaning.

Rail: There’s a point where you speak of art’s necessity to undertake impossible acts.
Bernstein: Modern art is the only kind of art that needs to, and does flag, its own constitutive failure. Every work of modernist art necessarily fails. When I say this I mean not by failing in artistic terms, but in failing at the one thing that art really wants to do: to be part of the world, to be real and not semblance. Art only exists in its distance from everyday life, and yet no art wants that distance. The fundamental impulse, I believe, of every artist is that art should be worldly—not an autonomous area, not stuck in museums, but part of how we make sense of ourselves in the world. The perverse ambition of minimalism to make mere things—which of course art as art cannot do—was a deep and authentic impulse. Even the most successful modernist art, in that very success, necessarily fails. The best of modern art has refined ways of acknowledging this failure. Because we hate the idea of failure and love the idea of success and achievement, it’s not easy to say that art lives off of its incapacity, lives off of its constant failing. But I think that’s right.

Rail: Doesn’t that argument thrive on the lack of definition for the need of art?

Bernstein: The need of art is the need that originates from the world driving out sensuous particularity. As far as the world is concerned, art can continue to exist, just as long as it doesn’t re-enter the world. (Laughs) "Stay irrelevant and you’re fine."

Rail: Let me reflect back on our discussion of what would happen in the age of digitalization if the digital world could neutralize all mediums. It would be the end of the "medium" discussion, which would in a sense be a relief. (Laughs)

Bernstein: Said by a painter. (Laughs)

Rail: At the same time, you wouldn’t be able to read where a color or surface is absorbing light and another is reflecting light and understand how that signifies. The sensitivity of our eye to perceive those kinds of changes is vastly sophisticated, more so than a camera, and that’s something that the digital image must come to terms with. The sensuous nature of a painting and its surface provides so much more that your eye can remain attentive to because there’s so much going on in the material. To me that difference is fundamental.

Bernstein: I think that’s wonderfully stated. Because, to think about the meaning of a medium without talking in very concrete terms, in the ways in which paint on surface has powers for holding visual attention that other media do not have is something that no story of painting drying up can alter. So when we try to think about why we still look at paintings, it is because painting still holds possibilities of providing sources of visual attention that other media simply cannot approach. And that matters to what it is to look at all. So to imagine the wild hypothesis of a world without painting is to imagine a world where fundamental human possibilities of what it is to pay attention will have disappeared completely. That would be horrendous.

Rail: The way a digital image can hold our attention through the movement, through the succession of different images, is a very different way of looking at things than the way one looks at a painting, and to recognize that difference seems essential.

Bernstein: Every media has a different way of relating to time, of condensing or spreading out time, of holding on to the moment, of creating a series of moments, and those moments can be densely intertwined or casually disjointed. Once one begins thinking about it, the number of possibilities is quite large; but those possibilities are media specific, and that’s why I find the thought of the digitalization of all media a horrific thing to contemplate. To lose all those differences is to lose what it is to have eyes at all.

Rail:At that point the sensory will have become a sensor.

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Joan Waltemath