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After Leibniz and Gauguin, the search for a new Renaissance

Guy Levrier

8 December 1998

Why did I decide to paint? Well, it's simple: for the aesthetic pleasure of course, in my case, ever since the day a professional painter friend of mine literally triggered painting in me with one short sentence "If you want to paint, paint!" That day, I stopped making intelligent objections to myself, I ceased asking myself questions, I placed a flower in a vase, I painted it, and I was happy.

Now, in the silence of the studio, when nothing comes, one has plenty of time to meditate in depth on the motivation, to attempt to "construct the philosophy of the thing". It is then that one situates oneself in one's time, in one's art. To get back into painting. But it's a sad spectacle, it must be said, when today's motto is "anything goes!" As if it were as easy as that. How did we get here, how did we achieve such decadence? I can find only one answer: it's in the association between money and pseudo-intellectual snobbery leading to the death of art, to nihilism, as many writers affirm.

The triumph of "anything goes"

Yves Michaud sums up the situation well:

"... the judgement which concerns aesthetic appreciation is identified with a judgement based on criteria and norms recognised by a specific community, and, potentially, by the whole of humanity. The triumph of 'anything goes' thus marks the end of aesthetics and even of art, full stop."

"In a more moderate version, responsibility for the situation will be assigned to a failure of critical judgement, which is incapable of discerning adequate criteria (Olivier Mongin), which lacks the courage required to impose them (Domecq), or has allowed itself to be marginalised by social change, with its fashion trends, snobbery and even a kind of terrorism of aesthetic judgement (Le Bot, Gaillard). The radical version proclaims art to be as dead as it is void of meaning (Baudrillard)".1

What's more, this is nothing new, no ephemeral fashion: Malevitch, in order to be original at any price, bludgeoned us with his sadly famous "white square on white background" as early as 1918, and went on to vaunt his nihilism in his writings, in case we hadn't understood2, offering himself as an example to other painters, in case they were insensitive to the charms of collective suicide. How is it possible that such a situation could have lasted so long?

It must have been that some of the "great and the good" finally felt the pricks of conscience, in the face of what was a very lively public reaction, in order for the French Minister of Culture to have commissioned a major sociological study "The rejection of contemporary art".3 The first lines of the introduction to this study are particularly heavy with meaning and clearly show the general climate of opinion: "It would, perhaps, have been sufficient to have given the reactions to this enquiry within the art world, so symptomatic are they of the place—at once massive a nd unspoken, omnipresent yet stifled,—held by the phenomena of rejection of contemporary art experienced by so many of the professionals responsible for its promotion."

And there we have it. With that, everything has been said. It would seem in fact, that the general public cannot be fooled, that people know perfectly well how to recognise art—great art—when they see it. They are obviously determined not to be excluded from it, and also determined that a pseudo-elite, in cahoots with commercial interests, shall not cause them to confuse art with imposture.

My personal approach is to place myself outside all of that, and in particular to move towards science, which has always been a source of great attraction to me, in order to see whether I could find a new way, working seriously in the company of the serious people which scientists are, finding echoes in all this of the concerns of the famous art historian Ernst Gombrich, who wrote:

"The progress of modern science is so astonishing that I feel almost embarrassed when I hear my university colleagues discussing genetic codes, when art historians are discussing the fact that Duchamp sent a urinal to an exhibition. Just consider the difference in intellectual level for a moment, it's just not true."4

More precisely, if we do consider it for a moment, what is more interesting is the confession Duchamp made to Hans Richter on this subject when he wrote:

"When I discovered ready-mades, I hoped I could discourage the carnival of aesthetism. But the neo-dadaists use ready-mades as a way of discovering some kind of aesthetic value. I clobbered them over the head with the bottle-holder and the urinal as a provocation and then they went and admired their aesthetic beauty."5

I cannot accept, either as an artist, or as a "man in the street", being attacked in this way by Duchamp, whether it's his urinal or the moustache he paints on the Mona Lisa, because he is desacralising what is sacred to me. André Lalande, in his "Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie" uses an example to define sacredness: "in the most usual , moral, meaning: the sacred character of the human being."This meaning also includes the idea of an absolute, incomparable value."6 One could not say it better. First, it is precisely against this aggression, this violation of my human person that I am defending myself. For one of my essential structural elements is precisely an unceasing quest for beauty, which is for me an absolute, incomparable value, which motivates my work. As a matter of fact, I am delighted to find myself in total agreement with the public at large on the matter, as witnessed by the above-mentionned sociological research. "People" enjoy beauty. What is surprising, to-day, is that it should go without saying.

Precisely, I feel that the proof of Art is that each human being on this earth can identify it and feel it as such, without having to receive any previous information on the subject.

Provocation through ugliness is just as grave for me as some bright spark of a hacker somewhere in the world planting a computer bug to destroy my work. I consider, in fact, that the artist has a moral duty to create beauty, rather than to delight in the vile farce of some wretched "carnival of non-aestheticism" à la Duchamp.

For far too long now, we have been in a situation of crisis. Faced with this situation, as a human being who accepts his share of individual responsibility for the state of society, I have attempted to construct a painter's philosophy, with the help of science. I espouse the thinking of Carl Jung, who wrote, in the spirit of the collective unconscious:

"If something is going wrong in the world, it is because something is going wrong with the individual, at my personal level. Therefore, if I am wise, I should start by putting myself in order."

So, if we place ourselves outside of the continuous stream of time, we observe, on the one hand Leibniz asking himself "why does something exist rather than nothing?" and on the other hand, Gauguin painting a picture which he entitles "Who are we, where do we come from, where are we going to?", looking for a reason for existence, as much for man as for the universe.

It would be easy to answer the first question by saying "It's because God wished it to be so" and to leave it at that. But can we really? Our contemporary physicists have been trying to answer both questions together in an attempt to produce a grand unified theory. The following is the conclusion reached by Stephen Hawking in his book "A brief history of time":

"However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then, we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God."7

Now then... We might also reply in all candidness to the fundamental question posed by Leibniz that if something exists rather than nothing, it's because it is intended for us. Trinh Xuan Thuan, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Virginia, writes, concerning the universe: "One of the most surprising findings of modern cosmology is the extremely precise setting of its initial conditions and physical constants, combining to produce the conditions whereby an observer appears in our universe. This finding is known as "the anthropic principle" (from the Greek anthropos meaning "man"). If the initial conditions and physical constants had been even slightly different, our universe would have been void and sterile; we wouldn't even have been there to talk about it."8

It is always a good thing to ask oneself questions—philosophically—but, as we are in it, this universe, we feel above all the need for life to advance, so as to be sure of finding the right answer, at least partially, in action, independently of any great unified theory, and what's more, a personal answer, specific to oneself, so as to feel alive. This being the case, we can only see action, guided by reflection, as the way of advancing, progressing, in other words, well—work! Work performed in the joy of feeling ourselves grow through effort in harmony with a certain Order of Things, which is expressed among other things, by the beauty of our universe.

What is striking is that, at whatever scale we approach it, macroscopic or microscopic, this universal law of beauty seems to admit of no exceptions in nature: the beauty of the different basic elements of matter, of all living things, of the whole cosmos, of all the mathematical laws themselves, which regulate this cosmos with such amazing precision.

Concerning this, Trinh Xuan Than also writes: "The aesthetic pleasure which a mathematician finds in doing maths is astonishingly similar to that which an artist feels when he creates a work of art. It reflects the same exalting feeling of having, for a brief instant, approached the divine and of having raised a modest veil of eternal truth."9

Precisely, I highly appreciate, in the mathematician's aesthetic pleasure, his quest for the "necessary and sufficient", which is also my law of creation, in order to express just the essence, and all the essence.

Incidentally, we would add that it would even be possible to extend the principle somewhat to make it express a moral lesson, that instead of trying to impose some kind of mythical equality on each other, we would be much better off and happier if we each tried to obtain just the necessary and to be satisfied with the sufficient.

Finally, the beauty created by the hand of primitive man in the caves of Lascaux, is one of the very summits of the stylised art of drawing. Precisely, man: it is as if Nature, whatever it did, spontaneously, were incapable of producing ugliness, whereas only man, with his totally free agency, had the freedom to do it, as he is at present revelling in his "anything goes".

For beauty to exist, aesthetic judgement must exist. So, who does the judging? Does Nature know itself to be beautiful, does it make efforts to be so, does it consider beauty as a categorical imperative, or does it just come naturally, at will? In this sense, is the universe self-conscious? In such a case, does the universe create consciousness or does consciousness create the universe? Or again, is their appearance concomitant? In so far as we are ourselves a product of this universe, and by contemplation of beauty we are led to pronounce an aesthetic judgement, are we not drawn into a self-referential process, which, Gцdel tells us, by demonstration of his theorem, includes undecidable propositions.10 For scientists, these are very pressing questions. Amit Goswami, the quantum physicist, quotes G. Spencer Brown who writes:

"We cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and in such a way as to be able) to see itself, but in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one other state which is seen."11

and Goswami goes on to say:

"... the brain-mind is a dual quantum system/measuring apparatus. As such, it is unique: it is the place where the self-reference of the entire universe happens. The universe is self-aware through us. In us the universe cuts itself into two—into subject and object."12

This is indeed what I felt, right from the moment I wanted to paint, in a vague way at first, quite hard to express: but when you become committed to creation, you feel a hunger for contemplation both from inside and outside, a kind of call to receive something which is in fact impossible to define, very solid, which retreats as you advance—it's exhausting. You feel like a child. You are given an enormous lesson in humility, in the face of creation, and at the same time an invitation to create together, a sort of invitation to participate in the self-reference of this universe. This is why, in this climb through the mist, I found it necessary to "construct my philosophy of things" , my personal entrance to this cosmos being, for reasons unknown to me, perhaps on account of a lively curiosity, quantum physics.

Leonardo13, the MIT magazine about art and science, is:

"Bell's theorem14 shows that quantum mechanics cannot be interpreted in terms of local deterministic theory; it has been called "the most profound discovery of science."15 It proves that any reality can only be non-local,16 i.e. that we live in a holistic universe, in which the whole acts on the part and vice-versa. This interconnectedness is my source of inspiration."

"There are two reasons I was attracted to quantum physics. First, I found in it all the metaphors I needed to "explain" my personal, ontological adventure in art through painting. I was mostly fascinated by the fact that since at the microscopic level our observation of matter disturbs the observed phenomenon, we cannot be sure of what reality is per se. On the other hand, what strikes us most when we observe our universe, which is made of that same matter, is its beauty. Consequently, I feel that beauty means more for us than reality, and that we have more certainties about beauty than we have about reality."

"The second reason is the fact that, to me, quantum physics is both the scientific development that broke science's materialistic approach and the bridge between science and the human mind. This is also the feeling of some scientists: "The centerpiece of this new paradigm is the recognition that modern science validates an ancient idea - the idea that consciouness, not matter, is the ground of all being."17

One thing is sure, if our modern science, despite its formidable power, admits of being incapable of defining reality, then this reality will appear to us as increasingly abstract and, as a result, the creative artist, receptive to the universe, will wish to depict this abstract beauty. It is difficult. I do my best, that is to say, quite the opposite of "anything goes". I hope, in this way, to cooperate in a new Renaissance, like a lost pilot, in search of the star.


1 Yves Michaud, La crise de l'art contemporain (Presses Universitaires de France, 1997), p.31

2 "In 1913, the famous "Black square on white background" appeared, which would be presented in Petrograd in 1915, at the Suprematism exhibition. "Painting is finished, the painter is just a prejudice left over from the past", he wrote. After this initial achievement, he discovered that an equally expressive contrast could be obtained by opposing same with same: this gave us his "White square on white background" (1918). Malevitch pursued this "pure experience of a world without objects" to the point where he ceased to paint" Frank Maubert, La peinture moderne (Nathan 1985), p.75.

3 Nathalie Heinich, Les rejets de l'art contemporain, Association ADRESSE 1995

4 Ernst Gombrich, "Entretien" in L'Image, Paris, Musée d'Histoire contemporaine, B.D.I.C., no. 2, March 1966, p.207

5 Quoted in: Henri Béhar, Michel Carassou, Dada, Histoire d'une subversion (Paris, Fayard, 1990), p.212.

6 André Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), p.937.

7 Stephen W. Hawking, A brief history of time (New York, Bantam Books, 1988), p.175

8 Trinh Xuan Thuan, Le chaos et l'harmonie (Fayard, Paris, 1998), p.317

9 [8] p.422

10 "The demonstration of Gödel's theorem of incompleteness hinges on the writing of a mathematical, self-referential assertion, in the same way Epimenides's paradox is a self-referential assertion of language." Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach (InterEditions, Paris, 1985), p.20

11 Brown (1977)

12 Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe (New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1993), p.190

13 Guy Levrier, Leonardo, Volume 30, Nr 4, 1997, p. 268 (Cambridge: MIT Press Journals)

14 F. David Peat, Einstein's Moon (Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1990), p.112.

15 H. Stapp, Nuovo Cimento 40B, 191 (1977).

16 Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1985), p.51. According to Herbert, "Arguing from quantum theory plus a bit of arithmetic, Bell was able to show that any model of reality whatsoever—whether ordinary or contextual—must be non-local. Bell's theorem has since been proved entirely in terms of quantum facts; no reference to quantum theory is necessary. In its most up-to-date version, Bell's theorem reads: The quantum facts plus a bit of arithmetic require that reality be non-local. In a local reality, influences cannot travel faster than light. Bell's theorem says that in any reality of this sort, information does not get around fast enough to explain the quantum facts: reality must be non-local."

17 Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe (New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1993), p.2