Sunday, November 24, 2013

Objects that Orient Ontology

Petrus Christus, Carthusian Monk
We've been spending the semester in my medieval art history class thinking about "Painting and Presence." Petrus's Carthusian Monk was my avatar on Facebook, I found him at the Met - we're in deep. Though I knew (with great relish and anticipation as I contemplated teaching these lush works of art with their vital wood supports, their vibrant oil surfaces, their fervent color projections, and their intense degree of illusion) where the course was going in terms of content, I didn't really know where it was going to go conceptually. I had set up "painting" as an emerging category (the newness of oil and its visualizing possibilities, the shifts in patronage arrangements, the gathering of different audiences) and "presence" as a kind of open category (aura? power? theology? ontology?).

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini

I don't expect the category of "presence" to be the same for every class (students' interests and my own will push and pull that different ways each time I teach this course, I hope), but this time, it was definitely ontology. The existence, the conditions of being, grappling with what it means to be so many things: painting as object, painting as vision, painting as devotion, patron, patron as image, patron as soul, and objects, so many objects that positively glowed by the time we'd realized we'd been talking and writing about them for weeks: shoes and mirrors and dogs and candles and windows and textiles (oh the textiles!) and tiny sculptures writhing on bedposts and the ends of benches and fruits and windows. What were they all doing and being? And though my writing presents them as a cascade of things, in each painting they are neatly arranged, suspended in a poised quiet.

Campin, Mérode, tools
If (if!) a hammer is a hammer when it hammers, what is it (doing and being) when it is in a work of art? (An equally good question, with a fantastic answer from the painter himself, is to ask after and asparagus: go ahead, look at Manet's one asparagus and ask!)This alone makes me wish we'd read more Heidegger, more Bogost, more Morton, more Harman, more Bennett - more object oriented ontology all over the place. (It also makes me wish that Harman and Morton would take their awesome art criticism to medieval art). The question is one that art history has asked in its own within-the-frame way (and, in being our "writing in the major" course, "Painting and Presence" has a historiographic element): a hammer is not ever (ever!) just a hammer ever since Panofsky wound the connecting threads of "disguised symbolism" into Early Netherlandish Art. It is the tool that helps Joseph make the mousetrap that will catch the mouse that is the devil for whom Christ is the bait from the typology of that one Psalm. The field of art history has wrestled much with disguised symbolism and social history has done tremendous work to shift the conversation. And yet, far from social history and deep into questions of being and painting, ontology and representation, that Panofsky started asking, this detail from the Mérode Altarpiece that holds some very prized objects has everything I want to be thinking about right now: tools, representation, and a table. Friday afternoon, I denied all grading and obligations and read Sarah Ahmed's essay "Orientation Matters" in the New Materialisms anthology and she wrote of tables (from a table) with Husserl and Heidegger and Derrida, and I can't stop thinking about objects that orient ontology, objects that are the starting point (Husserl's mode of orientation) for existence. You can start (oh my goodness anywhere, but let's just say) with the hammer in the world that Campin saw, and translated into representation. That represented hammer then does work an in-the-world hammer never could: it can (if our interpretive minds respond to it this way) be a symbol, or engaged in the symbolic construction of the devil-catching mousetrap. In some ways, the bigger challenge is just letting the hammer be. But I learned with elemental eco-criticism that we seldom let even the smallest blade of grass be, we and our yearning minds.

Christus, Goldsmith, coins and a mirror and...
And so I am left to think of these arrangements on tables, on wooden tables and wooden boards that become paintings. Of objects without symbolism, objects that might be "in and of themselves" objects, except they never are, being, as they are, pigments suspended in oil swirled over polished and treated wood. Except that they are objects because my mind perceives them so and is able to see great meaning in them (symbolic, radical - think Dian Wolfthal's piece from the Troubled Vision anthology about this very mirror). As Jeffrey Cohen's marvelous book on stones gathers, as I savor what Tim Morton has me thinking about in Hyperobjects, I want to think more about simultaneity and being: a stone as inert and vital; a painting as representational and real, an object as itself and salvation.


  1. The simultaneity of objects has also been fascinating me, and it came up a lot in my seminar this term. Interestingly, my students went in somewhat in the other direction, deciding that artifacts really are no longer the thing they once used to be; e.g. a Ming dynasty seal, since it has no power of authority anymore, really isn't a seal at all anymore. It's an artifact. I wonder if the question of simultaneity is a little different for artifacts as opposed to painted things. Perhaps the complexities of paint being an object and also representing an object (and that represented object in turn pointing to another object) call for us to see simultaneity, whereas an artifact's ultimate self-sufficiency gently nudges us away from it.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of the asparagus! It reminds me of my obsession with paintings of cheese, and of my obsession with JJ Sargent, esp Madame X. I know I should be adding more to the discussion you've started, but really, your post just makes me want me to look at more paintings!

  3. Ben and Jennifer! I just found these wonderful comments - glee! Paint's materiality and painting's objecthood need to have a talk (right, Ben?) - and I don't know what it is about paint _as_ paint that makes us want to look at more paintings, Jennifer, but YES (and that asparagus - oh!)