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Architecture or art? (Response to Leslie); War between philosophy and art (Response to Bernstein); Frank significance (Response to Orozco)

~’,

LETTERS
Architecture or art?

Esther Leslie’s sour dismissal of the wrapping of the Reichstag by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (RP 77)
contains a number of doubtful and contradictory arguments. Permission to wrap the building required a
parliamentary vote; approval was by 295 votes to 226. This democratic act by an institution of the state is
interpreted, in the article’s concluding flourish, as ‘a spectacular act of state power-mongering’, the
wrapped building ‘in effect, a gift to the German state’. Whatever the limitations of postwar European
bourgeois democracy, to interpret a discussion and a vote as if it were the impersonal act of an
unaccountable arm of the state is to falsify actual political process. Nor is it clear how ‘the state’ can at
once arbitrate power (,power-mongering’) and make a gift to itself.

Leslie’s critique of the architectural briefs for a new Reichstag advocating physical transparency (use
of glass), in order to ‘reflect’ the supposed openness of German democracy runs into difficulties when
set beside the wrapping of the existing building. If transparency is ideological, wrapping must in some
way differ or even be its opposite. The difficulty is evaded by arguing that wrapping generates ‘an
illusion of glassy translucency’. This halfway house between concealment and transparency is
unsatisfactory. It also contradicts Leslie’s view that the wrapped building’s night-time look of
‘immateriality and translucency’ is ‘a fraud’. If apparent translucency is a fraud, then the fact that
spectators could not, in practice, see through the ‘high-strength [and] fire-retarding’ material means that
the wrapped building was truly opaque. The use of transparent glass for the projected building and the
wrapping of the present one are different acts – the difference between architecture and art, in fact. The
political meaning of the glass Reichstag will be different from that of the wrapped one. Leslie’s attempt
to show that the wrapped Reichstag ‘prefigures’ a glass one, as if they were roughly the same thing, is a
clear failure.

The argument that the wrapped Reichstag was ‘commodified’ by the appearance of an advertisement
for beer showing a wrapped bottle and glass, etc., fails; that is properly called appropriation. Wrapping
suggests a parcel, but this parcel could not be sold, and could not be taken away. Esther Leslie draws
attention to Christo’s neo-Dadaist origins, then underestimates the critical humour of the movement.

The wrapping, she says, was ‘a simulated disappearance’, and ‘an erasing and bandaging’, a
‘swallowing up of the exterior’. In each case she finds a political meaning unintended by Christo and
Jeanne-Claude: disappearance means the ‘erosion of historical memory’, bandaging ‘suggests the
restorative act of unification’, whilst swallowing up leaves ‘an empty canvas’ on which the state can
project a revisionist history. We would argue that the act of wrapping is a witty and transgressive act
that satirizes the pretensions of the building. To see its essential structure is not to eliminate its history.

As to the un- or anti-democratic legislative acts that took place at the Reichstag, the wrapping can be
seen as an act of restraining; a refusal and a negation of the authoritative meanings spoken by the
building’s usual appearance. Now that it is unwrapped, it will never speak those meanings in the same
way again.

Whatever the politics, machinations and hypocrisies of the wrapping, this was a joyful event for
millions, participating or not. The building was walked, cycled and promenaded around. The wrapping
material was touched with curiosity. Thousands of photographs were taken. This was a family affair, a
two-week picnic during which the sun shone on the fabric and balloons flew. Berlin Turks could be seen
sitting on blankets in front of their barbecues. Leslie’s article does not convey the spirit, the fun and the
wonderment of this art object. The wrapping of the Reichstag made a suitable farewell to two old
Germanies, the BRD and the DDR.

Dirk Hansen and Alan Munton
School of Architecture, University of Plymouth

54

Radical Philosophy 80 (NovlOec

1996)

War between philosophy
and art
As a regular reader of Radical Philosophy since the time of its inception and ‘an artist who also writes’,
I feel impelled to make some response to your first article to engage seriously with the relationship
between philosophy and contemporary art. The publication of Jay Bemstein’s Slade School lecture,
‘The Death of Sensuous Particulars: Adomo and Abstract Expressionism’ (RP 76), is a matter for
celebration and congratulation. There are no themes more important than those this article invokes, and
it is a delight to read because of the way these thematic elements are set out, one against the other, so
as to establish areas of common ground between conventionally opposed positions, such as those of T.J.

Clark and Clement Greenberg. However, aside from the great complexity and delicacy of the
philosophical issues involved, the article’s tonality or mode of address presents a methodological
obstacle to the establishment of a framework within which an adequate dialogue between philosophers
and artists can take place.

This tonality is typical of a very considerable category of theoretical writing about art, and it indexes
an anxious and half-hidden contempt for the physical practice of art as well as for the intellectual
competence of persons engaged in it. It detracts importantly from the value of the analyses of cultural
critics of the highest distinction, such as Adomo or T.J. Cl ark. Though accessible in the first degree as a
more stylistic inflection, its effects penetrate to the core of their treatment of the larger philosophical
issues involved. It is, on the other hand, absent from the work of an art theorist such as Arthur Danto,
who takes seriously the existence of an operational state of waifare between philosophy and art which
dates back to their earliest recorded encounters.

There is a general exclusion of knowledge about contemporary art from university curricula today,
and an exclusion of artists from the spheres of intellectual influence. Yet there is a massive
contradiction at work here. For Rorty has well characterized ours as ‘an historical epoch dominated by
Greek ocular metaphors’, and it is difficult to name any philosopher who does not somewhe~e rely upon
presuppositions about the perception of shape and colour which the practice and history of painting call
into question.

RP 76 also contains (coincidentally) John Armitage’s review of Martin Jay’s book Downcast Eyes.

This suggests the very real danger that philosophers are moving sideways into a serious debate about
ocularcentrism and its critiques, without taking adequate account of artists’ writings and the history of
the documentation of artists’ opinions in this field. An operational hierarchy reduces the status of the
artist to that of a mere specimen or, at best, a provider of data for competent epistemologists. Its
operation is baneful because it draws a theoretically unwarrantable distinction between the activities of
philosophizing about art and philosophizing in art.

The ideology of an irremediable split between a veritas logica and a veritas aesthetica seems to be
demonstrable, in the first instance, by reference to an immense body of theory about art which is not
intended and does not deserve to be taken seriously by scholars in other fields. However, I would
maintain that this split is the result of a classical process of reification. When, for example, Bemstein
(following T.J. Clark) transfers his critique of the ‘petty-bourgeois vulgarity’ of the commodification of
abstract expressionism to an alleged ‘tackiness and kitsch’ in the canvases themselves, he vulgarizes his
own argument inexcusably.

The acknowledged poor quality of much ‘in house’ art theorizing cannot be used to justify the even
poorer quality of the lemmatic substructure which is habitually brought to bear on these same issues in
‘respectable’ academic milieux. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have at their disposal
dependable expertise in every field of human endeavour except that of the visual arts, where their
ignorance is not merely abysmal but also totally unaware of itself as a field of constructive ignorance.

Clerisy combines subjective contempt for the individual artist with a grotesquely exaggerated awe
for ‘art’ in its hypostatized form, with the result that artists are systematically trained to regard

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themselves with more or less irony both as a curious type of trickster/artisan and as candidates for
transcendental glory. It is a mistake to treat this as a mere problem of petty-bourgeois consciousness. It
is more a matter of the big-bourgeoisie’s use of art to legitimate its own claim to divine or spiritual
sanction. It is in the interests of both artists and philosophers to trade-in this ridiculous divinity-claim
against the advantage of being heard in those sectors of the polis where their experience might usefully
apply. Within such a regime, practice in the arts would emerge as naturally contiguous to philosophy
and sociology. I have long had the sense that a latent acknowledgement of this relationship informs the
policy of your journal.

Bernstein’s text has no interest in establishing this common ground. Its air of patronizing contempt
for praxis comes out in its final dismissal of its question, ‘Where might art go from here[?]: who cares?’

(my emphasis ). Yet this outcropping of a warlike intentionality is revealed as incoherent when placed
alongside the more habitual ‘art should .. .’ injunctional tonality which is common to Bernstein, Adorno,
Clark and many others. They do care where art goes and they care very much. Despite its other
excellent qualities, Bernstein’s intervention represents a veritable trahison des clercs.

Jeffrey Steele

Frank significance
Theresa Orozco, and her translator, Jason Gaiger, conspire on p. 25 of her piece on
Gadamer’s ‘philosophical interventions under National Socialism’ (RP 78) to
convey a wholly misleading impression of Manfred Frank’s view of hermeneutics,
let alone of his politics. Given Frank’s exemplary record of intervention in German
politics in the name of preventing any return to the horrors of the past, I think one
should set the record straight, especially on a topic as sensitive as this.

The British
Society for
Ethical Theory

Orozco cites Heidegger on the highly questionable idea of interpreting the
‘secret doctrine’ of Plato, and uses remarks by Frank from his Stil in der

A new British SOCiety for

Philosophie as though they back up what Heidegger is saying. She sees Frank’s

Ethical Theory was inaugurpted

position as implying an interpretative elite who ‘imagine themselves to be among

at a conference at Keele on 28

the select few who stand in the presence of a truth which can never be grasped

March this year. Originally

discursively’. Although Heidegger does play a – very selective – role in Frank’s

called the British Society for

broader discussion, the passage cited from Frank actually refers to the Wittgenstein
of the Tractatus, Kierkegaard and Kafka, and not to Heidegger at all. The
distortion is made even worse by Gaiger’s wrong translation of the passage. What
Frank in fact says about the Tractatus is that ‘What “shows” itself in the
propositions of philosophy, but cannot be “said”, and therefore really stays silent –

Metaethics, the Society arose
as an electronic mailing list with
around fifty members. The
society seeks to promote
ethical theory in Britain and to
foster contact among members

can yet stay silent in a significant [bedeutsam] manner’ (my emphasis). Gaiger, for

of the ethics research

whatever reasons, translates this last phrase as ‘can always remain silent

community, in the first instance

profoundly’ (my emphasis), thereby suggesting a wholly erroneous link to elitist

by organizing conferences, at

notions of ‘depth’, etc.

least annually.

Frank’s concern is actually with those literary aspects of texts which are clearly
significant (rather as music is significant), but which cannot be grasped merely in

Further information and

terms of an analysis of the meaning of the propositions of the text. Exactly

membership application forms

analogous positions are to be found in Schleiermacher, Adorno and other
thoroughly non-irrationalist thinkers. The attempt to turn this position into
something analogous to the worst aspects of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s hermeneutics in relation to Nazism is not just absurd, but betrays precisely the
hermeneutic characteristics which the author is concerned to unmask in Gadamer’s
interpretations of Plato in the Nazi period.

Radical Philosophy 80 (NovlDec

Dr James Lenman
Department of Philosophy
Furness College
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA 1 4YG

Andrew Bowie
Anglia Polytechnic University

56

may be obtained from the
secretary,

1996)

j.lenman @ lancaster.ac. uk

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