Reading Existence and Existents by Emmanuel Levinas, I stumbled across this neat little bit about art in the chapter on “Existence without a World.” This is a 1947 text, written right after the war, and before, it seems, the turn by the philosopher to more systematic conceptualizations of alterity and ethics, and before what might be construed as a flat and programmatic iconoclasm (i.e. the stereotypical blather about “idolatry”). The chapter starts out with the statement, “In our relationship with the world we are able to withdraw from the world” (p.45). Paintings, statues, books, cinema are all objects of “our world, but through them the things represented are extracted from our world.” Colors detach from things. The particular is allowed to exist apart (pp.46,-8 emphasis in the original).
The particular has a unique status in modern art (at the time of writing, he calls it “contemporary”). “From a space without horizons, things break away and are cast toward us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes, planes, triangles, without transitions between them. They are naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abcesses of being…Here is a notion of materiality which no longer has anything in common with matter as opposed to thought and mind, which fed classical materialism…For here materiality is thickness, coarseness, massivity, wretchedness. It is what has consistency, weight, is absurd, is a brute but impassive presence; it is also what is humble, bare, and ugly…Behind the luminosity of forms, by which beings already relate to our ‘inside,’ matter is the very fact of the there is” (p.51).
In thinking through what image I was going to add to this post, I first thought something like a surrealist landscape by Dali, Magritte, or Giorgio de Chirico would do well to carry the mood evoked by Levinas about particularity and materiality shorn out from the world and piece-like. With the world in ruins, they get at the lonely and insomniac character of this post-war thematic in Levinas’ writing, a mood that carries over into his mature writing. Reading through the passage again and transcribing it here, the image that struck me as better is Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’ Avignon. From 1907, it takes us to close to year-zero of modern art. The painting conveys what Levinas tags about blocks, and materiality, naked elements, weight, brute existence, bare and humble existence.