It’s almost an aside in the essay Richard Shiff gave me to read as an incentive to “respond” to his piece in the Brooklyn Rail that prompted me to pick up on his invitation. The context is a discussion of chance and whether its outcome in a work of art is significant or insignificant. The passage that caught my eye speaks of Cy Twombly. Here is Richard’s quasi-aside: “Would we notice a mark as an independent mark within a visual field if it were not that we had decided it must signify something?” As chance would have it, this brought to my mind Stanley Cavell’s question (which is also the title of one of his books), “Must we mean what we say?” The “we” in Cavell’s question is the speaker—in this case Twombly; the “we” in Richard’s question is the receiver—us viewers of Twombly’s abstract scrawls.
Cavell asks if, in order for his scribblings to be significant, Twombly must have meant them to look the way they look. Only Twombly knows, if he knows. Richard, in true Barthesian fashion (his essay starts with a discussion of Roland Barthes’s “The Reality Effect” ), puts the burden on the viewer. (Don’t we know from Barthes that the “birth of the reader” is the flipside of the “death of the author”?) His next sentence reads: “We need to have decided that the mark has the look of signification, even if we have no inkling of what significance it might assume.” For a mark to have the look of signification is to look as if it has been meant; it is not yet to signify something. The decision Richard asks of us is preliminary to the decision that counts. The decision that counts discriminates between the look of signification and actual significance. It decides whether Twombly’s scrawls are meaningful.
But do these decisions arise in that order? Before they have the look of signification, Twombly’s scribblings have the look of randomness: they don’t look as if they have been meant, they look as if they were obtained by chance. In order to extract signification from randomness, in order for chance to be meaningful, we must decide that the randomness we behold was meant. The burden is still on the beholder but the question is Cavell’s, no longer Richard’s: did Twombly mean his scribblings to look random at first? How shall we know? To Richard’s question there is always the possibility that the answer be arbitrary. Our decision that the mark must signify something might just be a generous or condescending way of giving the artist the benefit of the doubt. Or it might be a general endorsement of the use of chance procedures in art as a matter of principle or ideology; it is not prompted by this mark, here, that we are looking at. I know Richard doesn’t mean it in this general or condescending way: no one looks at independent marks within a visual field with more sustained critical attention than he, and what he demands of marks that have the look of randomness—or signification, for that matter—is what Cavell would demand of them: conviction. Conviction is what decides whether Twombly’s scrawls are meaningful. Conviction motivates the decision that the mark must signify something even if we have no inkling of what significance it might assume. Conviction retroactively prompts the decision to trust the artist—which is something altogether different from giving him the benefit of the doubt.
To trust the artist is to trust that the artist knew what he was doing. But what does that mean? Barthes (quoted by Richard), saying that Twombly’s gestures give the impression of being thrown, adds: “To throw is an action in which are simultaneously inscribed an initial decision and a terminal indetermination: by throwing I know what I am doing but I do not know what I am producing.” We the viewers know what Twombly has produced, for we see it. We shall never know whether Twombly knew what he was doing, though. It may actually be irrelevant whether Twombly knew what he was doing. We must trust him to have meant what he was doing, and to have known what he meant. The intercession of trust in the process through which we grant someone else knowledge of the meaning of their action is what Cavell calls acknowledgment. As we trust Twombly to have meant what he was doing when he threw paint at the canvas, we acknowledge the result. We acknowledge it to Twombly—which is to say, we grant him full responsibility for his action, and we acknowledge it for Twombly—which is to say, we accept the viewer’s share of the artist’s responsibility. As chance would not have it.
Thierry de Duve
New York, August 2019
Thierry de Duve is BIO TK.