A Time for the Humanities: Futurity and the Limits of Autonomy

By James J. Bono; Tim Dean et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Visual Parrhesia?:
Foucault and the Truth of the Gaze

Martin Jay

The task of telling the truth is an endless labor: to respect it in all its
complexity is an obligation which no power can do without—except
by imposing the silence of slavery1

MICHEL FOUCAULT

Cezanne’s famous assertion in a letter to a friend in 1905, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you,” was first brought into prominence by the French art historian Hubert Damisch in his 1978 Huit theses pour (ou contre?) une sémiologie de la peinture and then made into the occasion for a widely discussed book by Jacques Derrida, La verité en peinture later the same year.2 In that work, Derrida challenged the distinction between work and frame, ergon and parergon, that had allowed philosophers like Kant to establish an autonomous, disinterested realm for art, distinct from all surrounding discourses and institutions. Instead, Derrida insisted, the frame was always permeable, allowing the external world to invade the artwork. Apparent ornamental excrescences like columns in front of buildings or clothing on a statue cannot be fully detached from the object itself. In fact, the founding notions of artistic value—beauty or sublimity or form—came themselves, as it were, from the outside. So the truth of a painting could never be established by looking within the painting itself.

Similarly, the debate over the actual model for Vincent Van Gogh’s Old Shoes with Laces between Meyer Schapiro and Martin Heidegger, a debate that saw the American critic accuse Heidegger of projecting his own philosophical investments onto the work by calling them a pair of peasant shoes rather than those of the artist himself, could not be easily decided one way

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