Excessive Interpretation: Bataille on Art (1979)


I estimate that this was written in 1979. In the late 1970s, I had a strong interest in Bataille but once I found Rosalind Krauss was writing about him, I dropped the subject. You can see here that I was still absorbed in the critique of the phenomenological subject and in particular painting, which I soon abandoned.


Excessive Interpretation: Bataille on Art  

Georges Bataille is best known in North America as a writer of erotic novels such as History of the Eye and Blue of Noon. He sometimes still appears pseudonymously, under the name Pierre Angelique, in cheap and lurid pirated pornographic translations. Yet, Michel Foucault considers Bataille one of the most important writers of this century, for more than his erotic works, which, all the same, have impelled expression to its limit in that genre. His philosophical work, the Somme athéologique, Foucault writes, “has made thought enter into the game—in the jeu risqué—of the limit, extreme, summit, transgressive”; and anytime we read the terms ‘limit’, ‘excess’, ‘transgression’ in the writings of the French, such as Foucault, Barthes, Derrida or the Tel Quel group, it was Bataille who set the conditions for their discourse: “We owe to Bataille,” Foucault goes on to say, “a great part of where we are; but that which remains to be done, to be thought and to be said, that without doubt is still owed to him, and will be for a long time.”

Besides works on eroticism, religion, economics, Hegel and Nietzsche, Bataille has written on art, for an exotic readership in 1929 – 1930 and for a more general public between 1955 and 1961. The earlier writing appeared in a now little known dissident ‘surrealist’ journal, Documents. This was a period when the ‘orthodox’ surrealist leader, André Breton, morally denounced Bataille in the Second Surrealist Manifesto: “M. Bataille professes to wish only to consider in the world that which is vilest, most discouraging, and most corrupted, and he invites man, so as to avoid making himself useful for anything specific, ‘to run absurdly with him—his eyes suddenly become dim and filled with unavowable tears—toward some haunted provincial houses, more depraved, ranker than barber shops’.”

Lascaux, or the Birth of Art, Manet, and Les Larmes d’Eros compose Bataille’s later writings on art. Why should Bataille, who wrote a serious book on erotic art, Les Larmes d’Eros, be interested in writing on Manet, the founder of Modernism in painting, a man whom Bataille described as “A gentleman painter, a man about town, Manet only skimmed the surface of some of the more vital things of life”; and, “Manet had nothing very profound to say, nor was there anything very striking about his appearance”; and questioned, “What is hard to make out is Manet’s self-effacement, his moral timidity”?

What subversive intention lay within the agreement to write on Manet for the popular and inexpensive Skira series on art? Furthermore, how orthodox is his interpretation in terms of that of Modernist criticism?

Bataille explained the difference between Manet and his contemporaries as, “First, a Manet canvas, by its very nature, conflicted with everything that a painting was, at the time, commonly expected to be”; and, second, that a canvas by Manet, Olympia, “was the first masterpiece before which the crowd fairly lost all control of itself.” Thus, under the cover of an historical analysis, Bataille introduces the two conditions of, firstly, limit, and, secondly, excess that have consequences beyond both, and presently for us beyond painting. Manet and painting are as much pretenses for the message/effect of the book (“An Impersonal Subversion” as Bataille calls one chapter) as painting is for us today in our enterprises of excess for which painting is a limit to be displaced—rather than surpassed. This subversion is the “destruction of the subject”, as Bataille labels another double-edged chapter heading. “The repudiation of ‘all values foreign to painting,’ the indifference to the meaning of the subject”, on the one hand, seems to lead to a formalist, non-representational activity, dealing with the self-defined limits of painting, and, on the other, a transgressing of limits towards absence. This concern with the absence of the rhetorical and theatrical effect of traditional academic history and religious painting in Manet, once more, seems to align Bataille’s analysis with Clement Greenberg’s modernist critique of representation. Yet, in approaching Manet, Bataille does not condone a formalist reading of the loss of subject and the progressive flattening of the picture plane (just as the limit for Bataille is not the delimited edges of the flat support), but rather the loss of the subject as an operation of the absence of meaning—an operation that produces its signification. The loss of the subject is projected back into our own subjecthood and its consequent loss.

The conventions that Manet abandoned “were meaningless here since the subject, whose meaning was cancelled out, was no more than a pretext for the act—the gamble—of painting.” This gamble—the ‘jeu risqué’ that Foucault mentioned—is not the acceptance of the self-defined limits of painting, but an indifferent impulsional activity: “The stuff indifference is made of—we might say its intensity—is necessarily manifested when it enters actively into play. It often happens that indifference is revealed as a vital force, or the vehicle of a force, otherwise held in check, which finds an outlet through indifference. In Manet’s case the pleasure of painting … fused with that indifference to subject-matter …” This subject-matter “is not so much ‘killed’ as simply overshot, outdistanced; not so much obliterated in the interests of pure painting as transfigured by the stark purity of that painting.”

Outdistancing is displacement by indifference and excess (transgression) of the limits of painting. But that excess is also a loss for the audience; we face an absence when we expected something else—a subject, a meaning, a whole; but we have to accept this loss affirmatively, taking this absence even so far as to outdistance and displace (erase) the work and face the solitude and silence of our own bodies. The “definitive silence” of Manet’s work returns to us in our consciousness of our own loss of subjecthood, the loss of our identity. This situation was heralded historically and negatively in Manet’s anguish and the public’s sense of loss: “It was not the painter’s anguish alone, for it had spread, though they did not realize it, to the scoffers and the revilers as well, who lay in wait for the paintings which were so repulsive to them then, but which in time filled the yawning emptiness of their hollow souls.”