Wednesday, December 15, 2004


From Freud, "The Moses of Michelangelo:"
In my opinion, what grips us so powerfully can only be the artist's intention, in so far as he has succeeded in expressing it in his work and in getting us to understand it. I realize that this cannot be merely a matter of intellectual comprehension; what he aims at is to awaken in us the same emotional attitude, the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create. (Writings on Art and Literature, 123)

Unfortunate as it is to canonize an author's intention, alleging one's interpretive work with a piece of art final and complete once the "correct" psycho-analytic (or materialist dialectic, marxist, feminist...) solution has been discovered, Freud's essay on Michelangelo's statue of Moses admits in the end, if vaguely, to its own failure, and thus remains open. The ambiguity lies not only in the mysterious realm between "intention" and "impetus to create," but also in the fact that the artist may have failed to be faithful to hirself, or to hir original act of seeing. Freud wonders whether he has taken his analysis of minute details too far, guilty of being "too serious and profound:"
And finally we may be allowed to point out, in all modesty, that the artist is no less responsible than his interpreters for the obscurity which surrounds his work. In his creations Michelangelo has often gone to the utmost limit of what is expressible in art; and perhaps in his statue of Moses he has not completely succeeded, if his purpose was to make the passage of a violent gust of passion visible in the signs left behind it in the ensuing calm (148)

Interesting that Freud uses a canonizing trope to excuse his own interpretation from the canon. If the artist is "no less responsible that his interpreters," then why is failure of interpretation "modesty" in relation to an artist of "often enough...utmost limit?" In his postscript, perhaps sensing that he had ended on a vaguely contradictory note, Freud forcefully (or is it forcedly?) concludes that "a new piece of evidence increases the probability that the interpretation which I attempted in 1914 was a correct one" (150).

Is it true that photos never record an act of seeing in the manner of such things as sculptures and paintings? Perhaps if one considers the acts of composition or framing-the mechanics of timing, lighting, or shutter speed, say-then we are all indeed fishes in front of the glass, the lens our tank (D'ailleurs, Derrida). (What 'haunts' in Sebastio Salgado's photos of turtles is their eyes, he feels like saying, but photographs do not haunt. In all frankness, his original post titled, "Metaphysis" was a playful poke at Giovanna Borradori, who had asked whether her question about the "primary focus" of this blog was "too metaphysical...for a deconstructionist [sic] like yourself...") But what if digital technology complicates this distinction? That is, what if the "reality" captured on film is just as much a creation or text as the "impetus" sought to be re-created by a painting? Doesn't the act of re-posing or re-contextualizing always involve a transformation of a reality that was never quite stable to begin with? That is, one chooses how seriously to take photos; they consist also of the reality they exclude just as much as the perspective they record. Paintings as merely an early form of photography? Husserl would probably object.

But certainly there are degrees of openness and ambiguity to photos just as there are to sculptures? The big Other functions in both, or perhaps in neither. The mechanics of filmic reproduction are closer to those of the human eye, but the fixidy of what is suggested is no less assured. Is it time to declare the almighty 'aura' dead?

see Gender, Julia Kristeva

Ok, maybe now I am just trawling for justifications. The truth ("I always tell the truth") is that I have a complex relation with photos. Derrida did too, it would seem. Mine may have more to do with mere vanity, I'm afraid.
N.b. I am perfectly in fact eagerly willing to admit that this is all scriblogging sophistry and simply wrong, and possibly even deranged, if given the chance. Derangement does seem all the rage these days. But maybe it won't even be read, and I will get away scot (Scott?) free! That would really be the ideal scenario here, I think.

Update: Some more careful, related thoughts here.

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