54, boulevard Raspail
This text was originally published in German in the journal Texte zur Kunst, no. 9 (March, 1993).
The international exchange of theory has, as yet, largely ignored a group of French authors that deals with questions on the representation of power and the power of representation, with the relationship between images and texts, and the self-reflexivity of visual media. Aside from selective reception in England, the U.S., and Germany, the writings of Louis Marin, Hubert Damisch, Daniel Arasse, and Georges Didi-Huberman are still unknown and without any influence on art criticism and art history. This has occurred as a double disadvantage: while art history and art criticism have evaded a form of philosophical reflection that understands the visual as a critique of the discursive, the isolation of French theoreticians from the mainstream of international discourse has led to a form of self-referentiality; which at times has cost the relevance of their study. The difficulty in situating the authors begins with terminology: the term “semiologists” is generally applied to these authors, without it really ever saying anything about their work. I am also not sure that one should consider them a group. The convictions of the individual authors clearly vary from one another; they are in part contradictory. What connects them is not the shared commonality of their theories but rather their position within the academic field. They all work at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, which means: outside the art history field cultivated within France’s universities, characterized by positivism and an animosity towards theory. This insularity is countered at the École by a kind of cult of the non-discipline. “To be able to understand anything,” Georges Didi-Huberman justifies in his Dissemblance et Figuration, “one must think the opposite of the specialist’s accepted categories.” The anti-disciplinary impulse is based on the conviction that art history misrepresents its subject, reducing it to a piece of discursive knowledge; it is unable to do justice to its complexity and that which resists attempts at appropriation and explanation. Art history, according to Didi-Huberman’s reproach, changes images into concepts, or, more accurately, ignores all that which evades signification. “Art history books still want to give us the impression of having truly described an object and examined it from all angles […] Our question is, then, what are the obscure or triumphant reasons, which deathly fears or manic tensions have caused art history to take on such a tone, such a rhetoric of absolute conviction?” The École counteracts this rhetoric of absolute conviction through an interest in visual phenomena that can not be defined by a concept. Guiding these ideas is the conviction that text and image present different categories of signs, which cannot be easily and fully transferred one into another. Interest is thus often directed at aspects that, from an academic perspective, appear superfluous, perhaps even meaningless; yet are shown to be symptomatic in the semiologist’s analysis because they call into question, undermine, or dissolve systems of representation and signification. Skepticism of representation is inherent in representation, according to the creed. Hubert Damisch has shown this through the example of the confusing effect that clouds have had in western painting; Didi-Huberman demonstrates this through the functions that are ascribed to the non-figurative aspects of Fra Angelico’s painting. In Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde, this is also applied to the works of Minimal art, above all to the works of Tony Smith and Robert Morris.
Didi-Huberman begins with the impression of the “present-ness” that the Minimalists take as the particular quality of their works, and Michael Fried—their sharpest critic—takes as evidence of their attention-begging theatricality. Didi-Huberman does not agree with artists nor critic; instead, demonstrates in a lengthy, intellectual trajectory, from Freud’s “Fort-Da” through Benjamin’s dialectic images to Derrida, that Minimalist sculpture is not concerned primarily with present-ness, but rather with the traces of a vanishing subject and the disturbing concept of the return of the vanished. This concept is hardly surprising, nor especially new: Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson had already postulated the same idea at the height of Minimalism and revealed it as a particular feature of Minimalist works vis-à-vis the tradition of European sculpture, based on the effect of present-ness. Although Didi-Huberman conveys this in much more detail, grounds it more firmly in the history of ideas, and carries it more consistently to conclusion; his tour de force exhibits the traits of quixotry: he wrongly imagines opponents who at best clatter the old theory mills.
As accurate as his thoughts on the tautology of the idea of present-ness may be (or the immanence of Ad Reinhardt’s “Art is art. Everything else is everything else”) and as much as one wants to agree with him that there can never be a full present-ness (neither in art work nor anywhere else), because it is thoroughly pervaded by memory, absence, repression, and forgetting, the question remains: Why must we again conjure up the theoretical short-circuits of the late 1960s and early 1970s? The unsatisfying feeling with which one sets down Didi-Huberman’s book stems from the fact that it fails to make plausible the relevance of his object. Or, more precisely, that it doesn’t think his subjects historically.
Minimal art is constructed as an ideal-type, outside of the context of its creation and reception. That is fatal, because Didi-Huberman fails to recognize that the “present-ness” of the works he discusses has been guaranteed not so much philosophically as it has institutionally. It is naïve to inquire about the “present-ness” without considering the context of the museum, through which Smith, Judd, and Morris emerged as relevant artists and through which their works became “present.” Minimal art—marketed at its birth as “quintessentially American”—owes German museums for its survival. It was first the institutionalization of Minimal art (and the corresponding spectacularization of the museum industry, which Rosalind Krauss describes in TzK, no.6, 1992) that allowed it to become the object of reflection that Didi-Huberman believes to have discovered. The negation of history, and the denial of a reflection on the institutional conditions belong to the characteristic weaknesses of the theorists discussed here; it gives their thinking a strange, ivory tower self-satisfaction, and limits their accessibility.
The isolation of the semiologists from international theory-exchange may have been one of the reasons for their compartmentalization, yet it cannot completely explain it. It most likely is understood from the specific conditions of the contemporary art debate in France. The collapse of the speculative market of the 1980s drove the art scene, which had always been strongly government-aided, completely into the arms of the state. The existence of contemporary art has been organized by the state for this reason, which does not entirely put to rest the question of relevance, but postpones it for later.
Consequently, contemporary art debates are lacking in sharpness and issues. As an example, one argues about the return of the religious in art, or listens to a reactionary who is able to accuse Andy Warhol in Le Monde of having corrupted youth, which the public dutifully contradicts, of course. One can only hope that the latest publicity breakthrough and the fever surrounding the recent founding of journals such as Documents, Bloc-Notes, and Purple Prose, will lead the debate back to reality.
Translated from German by Charlotte Eckler
-  Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico, dissemblance et figuration(Paris: Flammarion, 1990). ↩
-  Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant l’image. Questions posées aux fins d’une histoire de l’art (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1990). ↩
-  Hubert Damisch, Théorie du nuage(Paris: Seuil, 1972). ↩
-  Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico, dissemblance et figuration, op. cit. ↩
-  Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde(Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1992). ↩
-  Ibid. ↩
-  Ibid., 37. ↩
-  Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico. Dissemblance et Figuration, op. cit., 68. ↩