The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
Editor's Message

State of Affairs

If we look at artifacts as events, as fluid configurations that occur under different circumstances, we notice a constantly changing state of affairs, one that shifts with the vicissitudes of our gaze.

Portrait of Oliver Berggruen. Pencil on Paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Oliver Berggruen. Pencil on Paper by Phong H. Bui.

Let us begin with the first two propositions of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921):

1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts and not of things.

Wittgenstein further develops this line of thinking:

2 What is the case—a fact—is the existence of a state of affairs.
2.01 A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things).

Without delving too much into Wittgenstein's vision of reality, we can discern that the term “state of affairs” refers to various combinations of objects or things. Suffice it to say, an object is like a building block in our system of representation, a bit like the way in which primary colors are constitutive of our vision. Objects are simple. They are basic elements that are made up of language, and a name usually stands for an object.

Yet this nomenclature is far from definitive. Later in life, when Wittgenstein started revising the earlier philosophy of the Tractatus, he said to a student: “...the world does not consist of a catalogue of things and facts about them (like the catalogue of a show),” bringing to mind proposition

1.1 The world is the totality of facts and not of things.

Wittgenstein enjoins us to look at the world from the point of view of facts or events, insofar as things are only temporary configurations or arrangements of things. This idea is reinforced, once again, elsewhere in the Tractatus:

2.03 In the atomic fact objects hang one in another, like the links of a chain.

This notion that the world consists of related facts is relevant here, since it forces us to look at reality in terms of “links of a chain” suspended in time and space, thereby constantly shifting the configuration of objects. One could argue that relations between things are also facts even though Wittgenstein states that qualities and relations are not objects.

Wittgenstein employs this shift in terms of thinking about the world as a whole, but I'd like to explore here its specific implications within the aesthetic realm.At this stage, I will propose two modes of fluidity that could undermine our vision of reality as the sum of stable entities. Firstly, we should look at worldly things and artifacts, as extended objects, in the sense that they unfold and metamorphosize in time and space. Central to this idea is that objects themselves are fluid, thereby eluding a sense of fixed identity, especially when it comes to some aspects of contemporary art.

Over the last century, artists have created works which don’t adhere to traditional definitions of art as physical artifacts. There are plenty of examples of artists successfully creating works by veering away from making material, encoded objects. These works have come to be known as conceptual art, performance art, impermanent or ephemeral art, etc. Even as far back as the 1950s, Yves Klein saw gesture and ritual as more fundamental than execution. In the single issue of the newspaper Dimanche (1960), he offered a “mere” description of various procedures for making art works and films under the title Theater of the Void, thereby deeming the realization of the work secondary. Over the past few decades, such protocols for devising art have had enormous repercussions, giving rise to artistic practices that have outgrown traditional representations.

Secondly, works of art change appearance according to the perception and response of the beholder; as objects, they are defined by the subject who observes them. If we look at artifacts as events, as fluid configurations that occur under different circumstances, we notice a constantly changing state of affairs, one that shifts with the vicissitudes of our gaze.

I would like to defend the idea of moving aesthetics away from objects as fixed essences, and to focus instead on the gaze, which defines human experience. This is why I subscribe, in the tradition of Kantian aesthetics, to a relational paradigm, to the notion that an aesthetic experience lies somewhere between two different realms: the physical reality at hand and our gaze towards it. The latter takes us into the realm of perception and experience. The existence of objects, of things, of artifacts, recedes into the background, insofar as the objects that define our experiences are facts, relations, feelings, in short, representations in which the tangible object is bracketed.

I will also invoke Wittgenstein’s notion of seeing-as, which he develops in the Philosophical Investigations (1953). This notion is also referred to as aspect seeing, whereby the beholder, in a manner reminiscent of Gestalt-theory experiments, sees or privileges certain aspects of a complex organization over others. The idea is that we can see, hear, taste different things by focusing on various aspects of a configuration. We listen to a musical composition, say a waltz or a march, in a very specific manner. We hear a Chopin waltz against a particular background, that of Romantic piano compositions, for example. Yet someone else who is conversant in ballet might hear it differently, accentuating certain specific features or elements that would otherwise be lost on a person with a different background. Aspect seeing moves away from meaning and signification (that is, fixed meanings), closer to the realm of comprehension and various possible readings.What emerges is this notion of the aesthetic not just as a discourse about art, but in more general terms, as a discussion on the relation between the beholder and a work of art. “You have to see like this.” Visual transitions do more than interpret things or objects we’ve already seen. They also enable us to see something new, as long as that thought and the world, our perception and description of it cannot be easily separated.

The gaze involves a great deal more than objects per se. It also relies on a chain of events and conditions in which the object is an event in time and space. There are many varieties of aspect seeing: within a particular cultural context, for instance. The art historian Michael Baxandall has observed this in Italian Renaissance paintings, not only in relation to a particular literary corpus, but also by invoking forms of courtly dance and other rituals. In contrast to this kind of contextual approach stands what Wittgenstein called the view sub specie aeternitatis: to see something aesthetically, that is, outside space and time. (From this point of view, an aesthetic experience involves the realm of the sensory, and the work of art is seen with the whole world as its backdrop. Or to put it differently, the work of art, as a telling fragment of reality, is a window into the totality of the world.) Yet another vantage point involves psychoanalysis, if we accept that art finds its expression in a corporeal form that in some manner reminds us of ourselves. Here the emphasis is on art emerging out of bodily feelings, a process of externalization described by the English art critic Adrian Stokes as “of making concrete the inner world.”

All in all, my hope is that we can look at works of art not so much under the guise of artifacts, but as points in a constantly evolving interface between the viewer and the world; not necessarily as entities endowed with agency, but as moving points in our state of consciousness. The contributors to this issue have been asked to explore ways in which the work of art is not simply understood as a physical object, but as one that outgrows such conventional definitions and their constraints; to trace a genealogy of sensory feelings, from neuro-biological responses to various forms of educating and refining (and redirecting) the senses.

Our view of the world is embedded in countless dynamic processes that are conducive to changes of perspective—how we look at artifacts, our environment, at ourselves and other sentient beings. The philosopher and anthropologist Tobias Rees argues that the conceptual interconnections that defined the modern age are undergoing a great transformation today. As a result, the ways in which things are arranged is also changing, including our notion of what it means to be human today.

All translations of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by C.K. Ogden (1922, revised 1933).

I would like to thank Paul Boghossian, Tobias Berggruen, and Mebrak Tareke for their invaluable advice.


Olivier Berggruen

is an independent curator and writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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