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J.M.W Turner. rhe Pnk Sk, afler 182 watercOor, 7V I s1 The Brltlsn Museum. London
PRESENTING THE UNPRESENTABLE: THE SUBLIME
Jean-Francois Lyolard
It IS not just photography that has rendered the
profession of painting "impossible"; to claim that it
was would be like saying that Stephane Mallarme's
work,or James Joyce's, were simply responses to the
development of journalism. Painting's impossibility
arises from the industnal and postindustrial-techno
scientific-world's greater need for photography than
for painting, just as that world needs journalism more
than it does literature. The momentum of this world
brought with it the decline of the so-called "noble"
professions which had belonged to the prevIous
world, as well as the contraction of thai earlier world.
Painting won its noble Imprimatur, was ranked as a
Fine Art, and was awarded almost princely privileges
during the Quattrocento. In the centuries that followed
it contributed its share toward realizing the meta
physical and political program of visual and social
order. Optical geometry, the ordering of colors and
values according to a hierarchy of Neoplatonic Inspi
ration, and the pictorial rules Ihat captured and crys
talized the heydays of religious or historical legend
helped instill a sense of idenlity in the new political
communities-the City, the State, the Natior;-by
allotting them the fate of seeing all through reason and
thus making the world transparent (clear and dis
tinct). The narrative, urban, architectural, religiOUS,
and ethical components of these communities were
given order on the piclonal plane by the painter's eye,
according to Leon Battisla Alberti's coslrzlOne legll
lma (broadly, Ihe laws of perspective). In turn, the eye
of the monarch registered a well-ordered universe all
Ihe way to the vanishing point. Exhibiled in the
churches and Ihe great halls of seignorial or civic
palaces, these representations allowed every mem
ber of the community Ihe same pOSSibility as the
monarch or the painter for an identity within and
mastery over that universe. The modern concept of
Slate-the republic or the democracy-is foreshad
owed by this commoner, who in perceptual union with
the monarch is a "virtual prince" and who will later
become the citizen. The modern concept of culture
stems from this public access 10 historical-political
identifying signs and to their collective Interpretation.
Museums perpetuate this tradition; but more pointed
ly, a glance into the halls of Congress In Washington,
or Into the Chambre des deputes In Pans, attests to
the fact that this classical spatial organization is not
limited to museum paintings, but structures the repre
sentation of the body pOlitic itself The extent to which
the plans of Greek and Roman public places are para
dlgms for the modern socIopolitical arena IS clear.
Photography achieves thiS program of metapoliti
cal visual and social ordering. It achieves it In both
senses of the word. It realizes it, and it concludes It.
The know-how and knowledge that were given sub
slance and were transmitted in the school and the
studio are now programmed Inside the photographic
machine. In a single click, an ordinary citizen, whether
amateur or tourist, can organize his or her identifying
spaces and make a picture that enriches the cultural
memory-bank. Improved conte,nporary instruments
free one from the problem of lengthy poses, of focus
ing, aperture selection, and develOPing. Thanks 10
optical, chemical. mechanical, and electronic refine
ments, the photographic machine makes certain of
the skills,experience,and training that were required
of the apprentice painter (such as eradicating bad
habits, educating the eye, hand, body, and soul, in
Agnes Marin, UncI/led 1 '6, 1980. gesso, acrlic aM graphite 00 canvas, 72 x 72",
order to elevate them to a new order) available to the
amateur. All the amateur has to do is choose a subject
and even there the photographer is guided by cus
toms and connotations, though they can be ignored
and the unexpected can be sought-as it olten is.
Rather than becoming a tedious survey, amateur
photography over the course 01 the 19th century
became a means 01 prospecting and discovering,
and even of ethnological inquiry. The old political
function of painting became fragmented; the painter
was an ethnologist ollitile ethnologies,and the com
munity now had less of a need to idenlify with its
prince, its core, than it had to explore its boundaries.
Amateur photographers made field trips; they re
turned with documents.
Painters had atready set Ihemselves to the task 01
documentation (one thinks here of Gustave Courbet,
of Edouard Manet), but they were quickly overtaken
in this. Their procedures CQuid not compete: slow
professional learning processes, costly materials,
lengthy production periods, difficult objects to man
age-in sho.rt, the cost of the whole endeavor was
high, compared to the relatively minimal total cost of
making a photograph. Later, Marcel Duchamp con
cluded that it was no longer the lime to paint. With
photography, the idea of the Industrial ready-made
had arrived. Those painters who persisted had to
confronl photography's challenge, and so they en
gaged in the dialectic 01 the avant-garde which had at
stake the question "What is Painting?" Painting be
came a philosophical activity: previously defined
rules governing the formation of pictorial images were
not enunciated and applied automatically. Rather,
painting's rule became the re-evaluation of those
pictorial rules, as philosophy re-evaluates philosophi
cal syntax.
Thus avant-garde painters cut themselves off from
the public who were already handling well-regulated
pholographic equipment. and had been leafing
through "real" pictures (and seeing Ihem at the
movies as well). That public remained convinced that
the programs for artificial perspective had to be
maintained, and did not understand that it can take a
year to make a blank square; in other words, to create
nothing (assuming that that's the only form of the
unrepresentable).
Thus photography entered the field that had been
opened up by the classlcat esthetics of Imagery, the
esthetics of beauty. Like classical painting of the
Renaissance, photography called upon communal
tasle. The nature of this consensus, however. is
profoundly modified in photography, as it is in the
whole field of esthetiC objects in the contemporary
Western world. Immanuel Kant insisted that consen
sus as to what is beautiful must remain free; in other
words, that it is not regulated a priori by laws. The
widespread introduction of industrial and postindus
trial techno-sciences, of which Ihe invention of pho
tography IS only one aspecl, evidently signifies pains
taking programming, by means 01 optical, chemical,
and photo-electronic processes, of the production of
beautitul images. These images immediately bear the
stamp 01 the laws of knowledge. The Indeterminate,
since it does not allow lor precision, wlH have to be
eliminated, and with it goes feeling. The person for
whom these beautiful pictures are intended is a
consumer of finished products. Photography's infalli
bility is that of the perfectly programmed; its beauty IS
that 01 Voyager II.
Loss cf 31Jra is the negative aspect of the hardware
involved in producing the machine that produces the
photograph. The amateur has to choose a subiect,
but the took is controlled by the manufacturer. Experi
ence is that mass of affects-of proiectlons and
memories-that must perish and be born for any
subject to attain the expression of ils essence. The
body of amateur photography has almost nothing to
do with experience and owes almost everything to the
experiments of industrial research laboratories. As a
result, it is not iust beautiful, but too beautiful. Some
thing is inherent in this "too": an Infintty: not the
indeterminacy of a feeling, but the infinite ability Of
SCience, of technology, of capitalism, to realize. The
ability of machines to function IS, by principle, subject
to obsolescence because the accomplishments of
the most esteemed capitalists demand the perpetual
reformulation of merchandise and the creation of new
markets. The hardness of industrial beauty contains
the infinity of techno-scientific and economiC reasons.
The destructron of experience that this implies is not
simply due to the Introduction of that which IS "well
conceived" into the field of esthetics. SCience, tech
nology, and capital, in spite of therr matter-of-fact
approaCh, are also modes of making concrete the
infinity of Ideas. Knowing all, being capable of all,
having aU.are their horizons--and hOrizons extend to
infinity. The ready-made In the techno-sciences pre
sents itself as a potential for infinite production, and so
does the photograph. In this sense amateur photog
raphy, atlirst glance not much more than Ihe consum
mation of the machine's Image-making capacities,
also betongs to the Infinite dialectic of ideas in Ihe
process of being realized--the state of consuming
and therein it heralds a new condition. The end of
experience is no doubt the end of poetics, but it is also
the concretization of an objective infinity which contIn
ually constructs and deconstructs the world, and one
whereIn the indIVidual, at whatever level of the social
hierarchy, IS both voluntary and involunlary subject.
It follows that the definition of a well-realized pholo
graphic image, initially linked to the rules of artificial
perspeclive, IS subjecl to revision. Pholography en
ters Into that infinite field opened up by teChno
scientific research. Its initial functIon, inherited from
the Identifying lask assigned to painting In the Ouat
lrocenlo. falls into disuse, as does the general com
munity's previous definition of its Identity. In the
current state of techno-science and accumulated
capital in the developed world, communlly Idenllty
requires no spiritual allegiance, nor does it demand a
grand, shared ideology, but it cryslallizes instead
through Ihe mediation of the total sum of goods and
serVices, which are being exchanged at a prodigiOUS
rate At the edge of the 21st cenlury the search for
knowledge, technology, and capital IS evidenlln the
very structure of our languages The traditlonal lunc
tion of the state has shifted: it need 110 longer incar
nale Ihe Idea of community, and tends instead 10
idenllfy with liS infinite potential to generate data,
CI(CIe of Pielo della Francesca. A Ideal Townscepe. c 1470 011 Q'pane. 2: ) 78"II S" Palazzo Ducale. UrblOO. Italy
Jacques-louIS DaVid, Tle Oath of Ihe TermlS Court. c 1191. Ink.
wash and poncd 00 paper. 2<4 l 3" Fgg Art Musum
Garry Winogrand. HardHal Rall. New York 1969. black and while
photograph Courtesy the Museum 01 Modern Art. Ne York
. .
Phctr.grapher une.nown, UfJl,Ued, C 1850 DaguerreotypA The
MI..'S(7lJ lI'nr I')')dsrr. Art Nevv York
Gordon Ofslcw-Ford W,lhoul Bounds 1939 er;rrd on (arVJS 28h x 36>'
know-how, and wealth. Within this trend, photography
is relieved of the responsibility for ideological identifi
cation which it inherited from pictorial tradition, and
makes room for research, and, of course, for photo
graphic art. We are past deploring "mechanical re
producibility" In works of art; we know that industry
doesn't mean the end of the arts, only their mutation
The question, "What IS photography?" draws photo
graphic researches into a dialectic comparable to
that of the pictorial avant-garde.
The pictorial avant-garde, as we have seen, re
sponded to painting's "impossibility" by engaging In
research centered around the question, "What IS
painting?" One after another, prevIous assumptions
about the painter's practice were put on trial and
debated. Tonality, linear perspective, the rendering of
values, the frame, format, the supports, surface,
medium, Instrument, place of exhibition, and many
other presuppositions were questioned plastically by
the varinus avant-gardes. "Modern painters" discov-
Garry Wlnogrand, Dallas 1964, black and white photograph Th8
Museum of Modem Ar New York
David Scharl, A Honeybees lye Sx 19n, blaCK and while
photograph
ered that they had to represent the existence of that
which was not demonstrable if the perspectival laws
of costruzlOne leglltima were followed. They set about
to revolutionize the supposed visual givens in order to
reveal that the field of VISion simultaneously conceals
and needs the invisible, that it relates therefore not
only to the eye, but to the spirit as well.
Thus they introduced painting Into the field opened
by the esthetics of the sublime-which is not gov
erned by a consensus of taste. Avant-garde painting
eludes the esthetics of beauty In that it does not draw
on a communal sense of shared pleasure. To the
public taste its products seem "monstrous," "form
less," purely "negative" nonentities. (I am uSing terms
by which Kant characterized those objects that give
rise to a sense of the sublime.) When one represents
the non-demonstrable, representation itself is mar
tyred. Among other things thiS means that neither
painting nor the viewing public can draw on estab
lished symbols, figures, or plastic forms that would
permit the sense or the understanding of there being,
In these Idea works, any question of the kind of reason
and imagination that existed in Romano-Christian
painting. In our techno-scientific industrial world there
are no consistent symbols for good, just, true, infinite,
etc. There have been certain "realisms," usually
academic-bourgeOIs at the end of the t 9th century,
SOCialist and national-socialist dUring the 20th-that
have tried to reintroduce symbolism, to offer the
public accessible works of art which Will allow It to
identify with speCific Ideas (race, socialism, nation,
etc.). We know these attempts always call for the
elimination of the avant-garde. For its part the avant
garde, in its prodigious effort of questioning prece
dents of painting, manages to neglect utterly its
"cultural" responsibility for unifying taste and provid
Ing a sense of communal identity by means of visual
symbols. The avant-garde painter feels an overriding
responsibility to the fulfillment of the imperative im
plied by the question, "What IS painting?" Essentially

what is at stake in the work is the demonstration of the


existence of the 'nvisible in the visual. The task of
"cultivating" the public comes later.
That which is not demonstrable is that which stems
from Ideas and for which one cannot cite (represenl)
any example, case in pOint, or even symbol . The
universe is not demonstrable; neither is humanity, the
end of history, the moment, the species, the good, the
just, etc.-or, according to Kanl, absolutes in gener
al-because to represent is to make relative, to place
In context within conditions of representation. There
fore one cannot represent the absolute. but one can
demonstrate that the absolute exists-through "neg
ative representation," which Kant called the "ab
stract." The momentum of abstract painting since
1910 stems from the rigors of indirect, virtually un
graspable allusions to the invisible within the visual.
The sublime is the sense that these works draw upon,
not the beautiful.
The sublime IS not simple gratification, but the
gratification of effort It is impossible to represent the
absolute, which is ungratlfylng; but one knows that
one has to, that the faculty of feeling or of imagining is
called upon to make the perceptible represent the
ineffable-and even if this fails, and even if that
causes suffering, a pure gratification will emerge from
the tension. It is not surprising to find the term sublime
in Guillaume Apollinaire's essays on Modern paint
ings, in Barnett Newman's writings and painting titles,
in texis published by many more recenl avanl-gard
ists during the 1960s. The word belongs to the
romantic vocabulary
The pictorial avant-gardes achieved romanti
cism-in other words, a Modernism (already pre
saged by Petroni us and Augustine) which signifies
the weakening of the links between Ihat which can be
lell and that which can be understood. But at the
same time they were by-products of a romantic
nostalgia, because they looked to their immediate
circumstances, to the actual conditions of the art
making process. Marcel Proust was still a romantic,
Joyce less so, and Gertrude Stein even less. Henry
Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich were romantics,
and so was Eugene Oelacroix: Paul Cezanne less so.
the Delaunays and Piet Mondrian barely at all. These
last three were already following the experimental
imperative (in what they accomptished if not always in
what they wrote). Their sublime was fundamentally
not nostalgic and tended toward the infinity of plastic
experiment rather than toward the representation of
any lost absolute. In this, their work belongs to the
contemporary industrial, technO-SCientific world.
As for Achille Bonito Oliva's "trans-avantgarde"
and similar current notions in Italy, Germany, and the
United States (including Charles Jencks' post-mod
ernism In architecture--which the reader will kindly
not confuse with what I have referred to in the past as
the "post-modern condition"), it is clear that under the
pretext of consolidating the avant-garde tradition it is
in effect squandering it That tradition can only convey
iiself through the dialectic of refutation and question
ing. Drawing firm conclusions, especially by process
of addition, means the end of that dialectic and the
encouragement of the eclecticism of consumerism.
I rederic EdWin ChUich. Labadr. 18. oil on paper. 8 x 11 Coper Hewi .. Museum. New YOk.
Mark Rothko. Number B. 1952. oil on canvas. BOY x 68". Mr and Mrs Burlon Trerr.air16. Meriden. Conneclicut
Bnce Mard, Morocc" Painin. 1978. 011 ana wax o canvat. i x 80.
Mixing neo- or hyper-realistic motifs wilh lyrically
abstract or conceptual ones on a single surface is
saying that everything is equal because everything is
easy to consume. It means establishing and ratifying
new "taste." This "taste" is not Taste. EclectiCism
panders to the habits 01 magazine readers. to the
needs 01 consumers of standard industrial imagery. 10
the sensibility of the supermarket shopper. That kind
of post-MOdernism. to the extent that it exerts-by
means of crilics, curators, gallery directors, and col
lectors-intense pressure on artists, aligns pictorial
inquiry to the current state of "culture." and strips
artists of their responSibility to the question of the
nondemonstrable. That question is. to me. the only
one worthy of life's high stakes, and of the world of
thought in the coming century. Any denial of that
question is a menace-and one that cannot be ig
nored. as it threatens to relax the tension between the
act of painting and the essence of painting, when it is
thai very tension which stimulated one of the most
heroic centuries of Western painting. This menace
implies the corruption of painting's honor-which thus
far has remained intact in spite of the worst tempta
tions of the state and of the market.
The governing principle of the postindustrial
techno-scientific world is not the need to represent
Ihe representable, but rather the opposite principle.
To turn away from this principle-that infinity is inher
ent in the very dialectic of search --is absurd. imprac
tical, and reactionary. It is not up to Ihe artist to
reinstate a make-believe "reality" which Ihe drive
toward knowledge, technology, and wealth will con
tinually destroy in order to replace it with a version
considered more viable-and which itself will eventu
ally be replaced. The spirit of the times is surely not
that of the merely pleasant: its mission remains that
of the immanent sublime, that of alluding to the
nondemonstrable. It goes without saying that such a
mission causes anguish, but painters are not subject
to the question, "How can we avoid anguish?" They
are subject to the question, "What is painting?" In
addition. they are also subject to the question "How
do we communicate our painting to those who are not
painters?"-but this does not mean that the two roles
are to be confused. To confuse them would be
comparable to the philosopher confusing responsi
bility to thought wilh responsibility to the public.
The responsibility of communicating the meaning of
thoughts and paintings belongs to the intellectual. In
fact, the question "What is Ihought?" places the
philosopher in an avant-garde position. That is why he
dares speak of painters. his brothers and siSlers in
experimentation .
The sublect 01 represenallon IS 01 suCh bfoad pn.losophial s tltllhouhl
It best to ccive this piece as a critical sk.elch. falher than as lar-raflQlog
analysi. -F L
Jean-Francois Lyolard IS a protessor ot philosophy allhe UniverSity of Pails VIII
(formerfy Vincennes). He has written several bs on the philosophy at art.
Translated from the French by Lisa Liebmann