Merleau-Ponty on “finished” works of art and other matters

My (recently footnoted) series on idolatry owes much to Merleau-Ponty. This is particularly the case in regards to my distinction between ‘finished’ and ‘completed’ works of art. For any interested readers and for further elucidation I’ve provided some of the relevant passages from Merleau-Ponty here.

On ‘finished’ works of art:

From now on there is no other way to comprehend language than to dwell in it and use it. As a professional of language, the writer is a professional of insecurity. His expressive operation is renewed from oeuvre to oeuvre. Each work, as it has been said of the painter, is a step constructed by the writer himself, upon which he installs himself in order to construct (with the same risk) another step and what is called the oeuvre. Each work, as it has been said of the painter, is a step constructed by the writer himself upon which he installs himself in order to construct (with the same risk) another step and what is called the oeuvre – the sequence of these attempts – which is always broken off, whether it be by the end of life or through the exhaustion of his speaking power. The writer endlessly attempts to cope with language of which he is not the master, and which is nevertheless incapable of anything without him, a language that has its own caprices and its graces, but always won through the writer’s labor. Distinctions of figure and ground, sound and meaning, conception and execution are now blurred, as the limits of body and mind were previously. In going from signifying language to pure language, literature freed itself at the same time painting did from resemblance to things, and from the idea of a finished work of art. As Baudelaire already said, there are finished works which we cannot say have ever been completed, and unfinished works which say what they meant.  – “Man and Adversity”

The artist is thus [according to erroneous interpreters] supposed to be ‘of the tribe of the ambitious and the drugged, and like them devoted to stubborn self-pleasure, to daemonic pleasure – that is, to the pleasure of all in humanity which destroys humanity. It is clear, however, that it would be hard to apply these definitions to Cezanne or Klee, for example. There are two possible interpretations of that tolerance for the incomplete shown by those moderns who present sketches as paintings, and whose every canvas, as the signature of a moment of life, demands to be seen on ‘show’ in a series of successive canvases. It may be that they have given up the work, and no longer look for anything but the immediate the sensed, the individual – ‘brute expression,’ as Malraux says. Or else, completion, the presentation that is objective and convincing for the senses, is no longer the means to or the sign of a work that is really done, because henceforth expression must go from person to person across the common world they live, without passing through the anonymous realm of the senses or of [objective] Nature. Baudelaire wrote… ‘that a work that is done was not necessarily finished, and a finished work not necessarily done.’ The work that gets accomplished is thus not the work which exists in itself like a thing, but the work which reaches its viewer and invites him to take up the gesture which created it and, leaping over the intermediaries, to rejoin, without any guide other than a movement of the invented line (an almost incorporeal trace), the silent world of the painter, henceforth uttered and accessible. – “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”

On Cezanne:

It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred fifty sittings for a portrait. What we call his work was, for him, only the attempt and the approach of his painting. In September of 1906 at the age of sixty-seven – one month before his death – he wrote: I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak reason would not survive…. Now it seems I am better and that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking. Will I ever arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued? I am still working from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress. – “Cezanne’s Doubt”

It is clear from his conversations with Emile Bernard that Cezanne was always seeking to avoid the ready-made alternatives suggested to him: the senses versus intelligence; the painter who sees versus the painter who thinks; nature versus composition; primitivism versus tradition. ‘We have to develop an optics,’ Cezanne said, ‘by which I mean a logical vision – that is, one with nothing absurd.’ ‘Are you speaking of our nature?’ asked Bernard. Cezanne: ‘It has to do with both.’ ‘But aren’t nature and art different?’ ‘I want to unite them….’ Cezanne did not think he had to choose between sensation and thought, as if he were deciding between chaos and order. He did not want to separate the stable things which appear before our gaze and their fleeting way of appearing. He wanted to paint matter as it takes on form. The birth of order through spontaneous organization. He makes a basic distinction not between ‘the senses’ and ‘intelligence’ but rather between the spontaneous order of perceived things and the human order of ideas and sciences. We perceive things; we agree about them; we are anchored in them; and it is with ‘nature’ as our base that we construct the sciences….Cezanne wanted to put intelligence, ideas, sciences, perspective, and tradition back in touch with the world of nature which they were intended to comprehend. He wished, as he said, to confront the sciences with the nature ‘from which they came.’ By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cezanne discovered…the lived perspective. – “Cezanne’s Doubt”

It is Cezanne’s genius that when the overall composition of the picture is seen globally, perspectival distortions are no longer visible in their own right but rather contribute, as they do in natural vision, to the impression of an emerging order, an object in the act of appearing, organizing itself before our eyes. In the same way, the contour of objects, conceived as a line encircling the objects, belongs not to the visible world, but to geometry. If one outlines the contour of an apple with a continuous line, one turns the contour into a thing, whereas the contour is rather the ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth. To outline no contour would be to deprive the objects of their identity. To outline just one contour sacrifices depth – that is, the dimensions which give us the thing, not as spread out before us, but as full of reserves and as an inexhaustible reality. That is why Cezanne follows the swelling of the object in a coloured modulation, and outlines several contours in blue lines…. The drawing must therefore result from the colors, if one wants the world to be rendered in its thickness. For the world is a mass without gaps, an organism of colors across which the receding perspective, the contours, the angles, and the curves are set up as lines of force; the spatial frame is constituted by vibrating….. The lived object is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the data of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which the data radiate. We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of objects; Cezanne even claimed that we see their odor…. That is why each brushstroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions; that is why Cezanne sometimes meditated for an hour before putting down a certain stroke, for, as Bernard said, each stroke must contain the air, the light, the object the composition, the character, the drawing, and the style. Expressing what exists is an endless task. – “Cezanne’s Doubt”

On receptivity to and artistic agency within the world:

[T]he cult of the artist which forbids us to know anything about their lives and places their work beyond private or public history and outside the world like a miracle, hides their true greatness from us. The reason why Leonardo [da Vinci] is something other than one of the innumerable victims if ab unhappy childhood is not that he has one foot in the great beyond, but that he succeeded in making a means of interpreting the world out of everything he lived – it is not that he did not have a body or sight, but that he constituted his corporeal or vital situation in language. When one goes from the order of events to that of expression, one does not change worlds…. Hollowed out, worked from within, and finally freed from the weight upon us which made them painful or wounding, they become transparent or even luminous, and capable of clarifying not only the aspects of the world which resemble them but the others too; yet transformed as they may be, they still do not cease to be there…. If we take the painter’s point of view in order to be present at that decisive moment when what has been given to him to live by way of physical destiny, personal odyssey, or historical circumstances crystallizes into ‘the motif,’ we will recognize that his work, never an effect, is always a response to these givens [or gifts], and that the body, life, landscapes, schools, mistresses, creditors, the police, and the revolution which might suffocate painting, are also the bread his painting consecrates. – “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”


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