The Difference Experience Makes in "The Philosophical Brothel"

Article excerpt

One of the first things we ought to notice about "The Philosophical Brothel," Leo Steinberg's 1972 essay on Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (Fig. 1), is just how thoroughly it has permeated our understanding of that painting.1 Today it seems impossible to write or even think about the Demoiselles in terms unrelated to those of Steinberg's interpretation. This has everything to do, I would argue, with the essential aptness of the essay-the fact that it is an interpretation of the painting, and not something imposed on it from outside. Yet I would also argue that the nature of that interpretation, and consequently the nature of the painting, have been widely misconstrued. Indeed, it seems to me that the situation demands an attentive rereading of "The Philosophical Brothel"-one as fully attentive as Steinberg himself was to the insistent demands of the Demoiselles. The commentary that follows is offered, then, as an opening or catalyst to that process of rereading, in the hope that we might, collectively, be moved in and through it to experience both the essay and the painting on somewhat different grounds.

We can get a fairly good idea of current regard for "The Philosophical Brothel" from the anthology of writings about the Demoiselles that was published just over a year ago.2 In the introduction to that volume, Steinberg's text is described as having had a transformative significance:

Before [his] essay, the Demoiselles d'Avignon was the birthplace of cubism, the marker of an epochal shift from content to form in modern painting; after Steinberg's essay, it has become the marker of an epochal shift to a new kind of engagement with sexuality, one whose immediacy was unprecedented in the history of painting. The Picasso behind such a picture is a man whose biography might be as important as his artistic influences; psychoanalysis might be as important to grasping such a picture's meaning as practical criticism. And . . . those meanings are to be found in the spectator as much as in Picasso, for the spectator constructed by Steinberg's essay is not merely an implied reader looking in reflectively from outside, but. . . the ultimate maker of meaning-in a sense, the picture's own center of attention.3

A number of things are nicely brought out by this description, particularly the sense that "The Philosophical Brothel" did not simply give us a new context in which to consider the Demoiselles; rather, the paragraph suggests, it changed how the work itself appeared, which in turn fundamentally altered the sort of interest that we took in it. The (perhaps unintentional) conflation of viewers and readers in the paragraph's final sentence might also be held to reinforce the point with which I began-namely, that in looking at the Demoiselles we invariably think of "The Philosophical Brothel." Again, I take this as confirmation of the essential Tightness or "fit" of its interpretation.

Unfortunately, other aspects of those introductory remarks fall, to my mind, a bit wide of the mark. As characterizations of recent scholarship on the Demoiselles, they are, admittedly, accurate enough: psychobiographical analyses of the painting have become commonplace since the publication of Steinberg's essay, as has the assumption that the demoiselles' direct address (which Steinberg explicitly called to our attention) somehow empowers the viewer and so licenses his or her subjective response.4 The implication that these approaches are actually grounded in or sanctioned by "The Philosophical Brothel," however, is clearly based on a misreading (or, rather, separate misreadings) of that text. The psychobiographical analyses, after all, ignore or repress the point Steinberg had made about the viewer's involvement with the work, while the other accounts, conversely, overestimate the authority invested in that role. To see the painting's viewer as "the ultimate maker of meaning" is fundamentally to misrecognize how, in "The Philosophical Brothel," we are held to stand in relation to the Demoiselles. …