Using Hegel’s characterization, I suggested in the first chapter that the striking gazes in Manet’s paintings in the 1860s and beyond were best understood as interrogative. They raise at once the question of the point of modern easel painting and at the same time the possibility of social relationships responsive to the challenge raised in the gazes, a challenge to the possible embodiment of mutually achieved meaning in sensible materiality… Cézanne’s late bather paintings could be understood as expressing the ever more limited possibilities of answering those questions, or perhaps intimations of the suspicion that they cannot be answered or that they can be answered only at the level of the shareability of a rather brutish material meaning. (Said in a more Hegelian way: we have not brought about, realized, a world in which Manet’s challenge can be met). They are nevertheless extraordinarily powerful, effective paintings despite those limitations because Cézanne has found a way of keeping those questions alive, and so continuing to draw the beholder into the paintings and so into those questions. Moreover, the paintings, all of them, the still lifes, the landscapes, and the figural paintings, exude such an immense self-confidence in the possibilities of even a much more reduced or narrower frame within which Manet’s questions can continue to be interrogated, and in the continuing distinctness and importance of such a unique form of visual or gestural intelligibility, that the mysteriousness of these paintings never evinces a hint of skepticism or despair.
Once can only suggest here that the elemental or alien, brutish, either absolutely isolated or bizarrely merging, barely gendered figures, figures who look more like flesh sacks (they don’t appear to have bones or joints), who often appear indistinguishable from one another, and who do not occupy space as much as are laid flat onto a plane. The figures whom we see in these great paintings of bathers are not a manifestation of any ontological truth as much as they are simply “what remains” as a possible level of shareable intelligibility in a situation of ever greater “worldlessness,” or, as Heidegger himself says about animals, the world-poor contexts for such art. We seem pressed into intimations of a level of materiality and quite basic but primitive and merely gestural meaning (of a sort that would be ever more apparent in modernist sculpture and later experimentations in painting) that are at once striking, recognizable, and, in Cézanne’s context, frightening because so minimal, elemental, and just thereby resistant to any determinate interrogation.
So far as photography satisfied a wish, it satisfied a wish not confined to painters, but the human wish, intensifying in the West since the Reformation, to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation – a wish for the power to reach this world, having for so long tried, at last hopelessly, to manifest fidelity to another. And painting was not “freed” – and not by photography – from its obsession with likeness. Painting, in Manet, was forced to forgo likeness exactly because of its own obsession with reality, because the illusions it had learned to create did not provide the conviction in reality, the connection with reality, that it craved.
Of course, there will always be work and leisure activities and athletic contests and reading that all require intense attention, concentration. But when painting such activities begins to fail to compel conviction, both aesthetic and, let us say, existential credibility are at stake. Absorption, as successfully depicted, would be genuine indifference to the beholder, and working, modern work, wage labor especially, is by and large working for someone, and usually in repetitive and stultifying ways. (Stultifying mindlessness is not absorption).
I am tempted to rest my whole case for the relevance of Hegel to these questions on one passage from the Lectures:
So, conversely, art makes every one of its productions into a thousand-eyed Argus, whereby the inner soul and spirit is seen at every point. And it is not only the bodily form, the look of the eyes, the countenance and the posture, but also actions and events, speech and tones of voice, and the series of their course through all conditions of appearance that art has everywhere to make into an eye, in which the free soul is revealed in its inner infinity.
The idea that visual art can be said to transform the surface of every object, even the appearance of actions, events, speeches, and so forth into a thousand-eyed creature is also a claim that the reception and appreciation of the work should be understood not as inspiring intimation of the ideal nor as the occasion of an inner harmony or unusual, disinterested pleasure. After all, even when confronted by a two-eyed creature, the task of figuring out what is revealed in someone’s eyes is obviously not straightforward. It can be much more difficult than understanding what that person says. A response appropriate to the ambition of the work thus must be an interpretive accomplishment of sorts, one that begins in some interrogative, not merely receptive or affective or even contemplative, relation to the object, a feature of the aesthetic experience that Hegel suggests is spectacularly more difficult than often appreciated because it imagines an artwork as a thousand-eyed Argus.
[T]he effect of the paintings is rather something like cognitive or musical dissonance, almost as if both paintings were intended as a kind of affront or at least challenge, “turned” in toto toward the beholder with a strange, flamboyant indifference to that beholder. In a striking departure from what Fried has called the absorptive tradition of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the subjects in Manet’s paintings often look out of the picture frame toward the beholder, inviting what would have been called “theatricality.” But the uncanny effect of this “facingness,” as Fried calls it, is that such beholders – us, standing right there – are as if invisible or at least irrelevant, occupying no important presence in the subject’s vacant or bemused look. This absence of even the possibility of mutuality (between the subject of the painting and the beholder) suggested by this invisibility or irrelevance – not its simple failure, not just misrecognition (and the air of unmistakable unease that this creates) – is what helps to suggest the incomplete and fragmentary atmosphere in many of the paintings. And while there are elements of great beauty in Manet’s work, and a kind of pleasure in the sheer boldness of the painting, the romantic categories, even the whole notion of the beautiful, all seem simply beside the point.
Manet appreciated how less and less credible absorptive antitheatrical strategies had become (or, said in a broader way at issue in this discussion, how less and less credible it was that a subject was not always taking the other into intimate account in acting or speaking) and so how much greater the threat of theatricality had become, and his response was to insist on a technique – turning the subject’s gaze toward the beholder and directly, even aggressively, confronting the beholder – something that would have seemed before Manet the very essence of theatricality, something like an effect of an actor stepping outside his role and addressing the audience. Fried called this Manet’s “facingness” technique, used to great effect by him in producing a dramatic “strikingness” that, in its intensity, its instantaneousness, its challenge to any narrative coherence, defeats any theatrical effect.
In the Soap Bubble the transparent, slightly distended globe at the tip of the young man’s blowpipe seems almost to swell and tremble before our eyes; in the Card Castle the youth placing a card in position appears on the verge of drawing back his hand; while in the Game of Knucklebones a single moment has been isolated in all its plentitude and density from an absorptive continuum the full extent of which the painting masterfully evokes. Images such as these are not of time wasted but of time filled (as a glass may be filled not just to the level of the rim but slightly above). Whatever their iconographic precedents or even their actual symbolic connotations, they embody a new, unmoralized vision of distraction as a vehicle of absorption; or perhaps one should say of that vision that it distills, from the most ordinary states and activities, an unofficial morality according to which absorption emerges as a good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion; or perhaps it is simply that Chardin found in the absorption of his figures both a natural correlative for his own engrossment in the act of painting and a proleptic mirroring of what he trusted would be the absorption of the viewer before the work.
By virtue of fronting the beholder and what is more opening toward him, the drawer serves to enforce a distinction between the beholder’s point of view and perception of the scene as a whole and the quite different point of view and limited, exclusive focus of the youth balancing the cards. There is even a sense in which the contrast between the two cards — one facing the beholder, the other blankly turned away from him — may be seen as an epitome of the contrast between the surface of the painting, which of course faces the beholder, and the absorption of the youth in his delicate undertaking, a state of mind that is essentially inward, concentrated, closed…
Chardin’s paintings of games and amusements, in fact all his genre paintings, are also remarkable for their uncanny power to suggest the actual duration of the absorptive states and activities they represent. Some such power necessarily characterizes all persuasive depictions of absorption, none of which would be persuasive if it did not at least convey the idea that the state or activity in question was sustained for a certain length of time. But Chardin’s genre paintings, like Vermeer’s before him, go much further than that. By a technical feat which virtually defies analysis… they come close to translating literal duration, the actual passage of time as one stands before the canvas, into a purely pictorial effect: as if the very stability and unchangingness of the painted image are perceived by the beholder not as material properties that could not be otherwise but as manifestations of an absorptive state — the image’s absorption in itself, so to speak — that only happens to subsist. The result, paradoxcially, is that stability and unchangingness are endowed to an astonishing degree with the power to conjure an illusion of imminent or gradual or even fairly abrupt change.
The special character of Chardin’s achievement is perhaps the most evident in his depictions of children and young people playing games or engaged in apparently trivial amusements — for example, The Soap Bubble, The Game of Knucklebones, and The Card Castle. This is true despite the fact that it is not at all clear to what extent Chardin himself intended such paintings to be seen as Vanitas images, as has been suggested by various scholars on the strength both of an earlier tradition in which genre scenes and still lifes were invested with symbolic significance and of the moralizing verses that were often appended to contemporary engravings after Chardin’s canvases. Other scholars have resisted the suggestion, seeing in Chardin’s art the liquidation rather than the continuation of a moralizing tradition and insisting that the cast of mind at work in the verses is alien to the paintings themselves. However one resolves this question in one’s own mind, and there is much to be said for both positions, two observations seem to me of crucial importance. First, it is impossible to distinguish the least difference in Chardin’s attitude toward his subject matter between the pictures of games and amusements on the one hand and ostensibly more serious or morally exemplary scenes on the other. And second, far from seeming to have wished to characterize the activities depicted in the former as shallow pastimes or mere distractions, Chardin appears to have been struck precisely by the depth of absorption which those activities have tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them. At any rate, he appears to have done all he could to make that depth of absorption manifest to the beholder, most importantly by singling out in each picture at least one salient detail that functions as a sign of the figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing. Thus in the Soap Bubble our attention is caught by the tear in the young man’s jacket; in the Game of Knucklebones by the upper corner of the young woman’s apron that has become unpinned; and in the Card Castle, in the immediate foreground, by the negligently half-opened drawer containing a pair of playing cards.