Return to Equinoxes, Issue 3 : Printemps/Eté 2004
Article ©2004, Anne McConnell
During the 19th century, as the aristocracy fell and the bourgeoisie rose, the socio-political systems of the past largely died -- mass culture replaced the private and absolutist character of court society. Yet, interestingly enough, social systems changed long before painting proved willing to change with them; painters continued to uphold the artistic ideals of the past, even when the drastically new political and social environment rendered these ideals empty and absurd. In his essay "Manet," George Bataille identifies the moment where painting finally transgresses the art of the past; he argues that Edouard Manet "se borne à s'éloigner brusquement du système mort occupant la place" (OC 120). According to Bataille's consideration of Manet's work, a new system of art emerges with Manet -- his work constitutes, at least figuratively, the origin of modern art. But in order to truly capture the weight which Bataille gives to the work of Manet, we can turn to the questions of origin and transgression posed in his book Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art. In this text, Bataille discusses the transgressive movement of art into the sacred realm as it theoretically took place among our first human ancestors. When reading Bataille's two texts together, "Manet" and Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art, one remarks the parallel between his theory of the birth of art as transgression, represented in the cavern paintings at Lascaux, and the modern version of this artistic transgression, identified with the painting of Edouard Manet.
In Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art, Bataille presents his theory on how the primitive cavern paintings apply to our understanding of the evolution of humankind. Previous interpretations of the paintings generally equate the art with "la magie sympathique" -- in other words, scholars have suggested that the representations of the animals had the specific goal of producing success in hunting activities. While Bataille does not outright reject this theory, he argues that the paintings should not be reduced to merely having a use value.
La magie dut avoir, dans l'esprit des hommes de Lascaux, une part semblable à celle qu'elle occupe dans celui des peuples qu'étudient l'histoire ancienne et l'ethnographie. Il est bon cependant de protester contre l'habitude d'attribuer beaucoup de sens à cette volonté d'action efficace. Nous devons bien admettre enfin qu'en toute opération rituelle, la recherche d'un but précis ne joue jamais qu'entre autres dans les intentions de ceux qui opèrent: ces intentions englobent toujours la réalité entière, religieuse et sensible (esthétique)...Comment ne pas voir la faible portée des intentions particulières à telle uvre d'art si l'on envisage la constance et l'universalité de cet objet? (OC 37)
The material reasons for representing the animals in the cavern likely existed, but when considering the artistic value of Lascaux, the possible intentions of the artist must be placed aside. Instead, Bataille urges us to consider the feeling of a "claire et brûlante présence" which strikes any visitor entering the cavern of Lascaux, for it is the evocation of this feeling which, according to Bataille, identifies the greatest works of art throughout history (OC 13). Readers of Bataille's essay likely see the problems which arise from such an argument -- one which depends upon the inexpressible feeling of the spectator -- but it is precisely the difficulty in discursively explaining and defending the presence of the cavern paintings which supports their identity as art. Reducing the paintings to what we can readily explain with language, and to what we can logically understand about use-value, ignores the art of Lascaux.
As Bataille guides us through his understanding of the development of the human species in his book, it becomes increasingly evident why the clear distinction between "useful" activity and the creation of art is necessary. Bataille writes, "Deux événements décisifs ont marqué le cours du monde; le premier est la naissance de l'outillage (ou du travail); le second, la naissance de l'art (ou du jeu)" (OC 28). So, within this framework, we see that the cavern paintings at Lascaux occupy a much more significant place when considered as art rather than as useful activity -- it marks a passage from the world of work into the world of art, thus making it a place of birth, or origin. Yet one must note that the world of art depends upon the world of work in two important ways. First, the creation of tools which defines the world of work makes art possible; artistic creation employs both the tools and the knowledge acquired through work. Second, art emerges as a reaction to work, and thus, work serves as a point which art seeks to surpass -- this movement past the world of work always remains relative to, and conscious of, this world. Bataille explains, "c'est une protestation contre un monde qui existait, mais sans lequel la protestation elle-même n'aurait pu prendre corps" (OC 28). He sees Lascaux as the artistic markings of this protest -- as a sort of "game" which opposes the world of work. It is into this category of the game which art falls because "ce que l'art est tout d'abord, et ce qu'il demeure avant tout, est un jeu. Tandis que l'outillage est le principe du travail" (OC 28). In order to better understand the passage from the world of work to the world of the game, we turn to Bataille's concept of interdit and transgression.
The Neanderthal, although not yet at the accomplished stage of the Homo Sapiens, represents what Bataille refers to as the first decisive moment in the development of humankind.1
Se reportant sur eux-mêmes, ces êtres qui faisaient, qui créaient des objets, qui employaient des outils durables, comprirent qu'ils mouraient, qu'en eux quelque chose ne résistait pas, alors que les objets résistent à la fuite du temps. Quelque chose ne résistait pas...quelque chose du moins leur échappait...La conscience de la mort s'imposa de cette manière dès ces temps anciens à la fin desquels nous trouvons l'usage de l'inhumation. (OC 31)
So the Neanderthal who produced tools, and thus the world of work, also created sepulchers to bury the dead. As Bataille explains, they recognized the fleeting quality of their lives, as opposed to objects in the world which did not appear to change with time. In addition, the inhumation practiced by the Neanderthal shows that the corpse represented a privileged object -- one which signified both presence (of a body) and absence (of life) at the same time. Bataille takes this notion one step further, asserting, "Dès l'origine, évidemment, ces conduites impliquaient un sentiment de peur ou de respect: en tout cas, un sentiment fort qui faisait des restes humains des objets différents de tous les autres" (33). This behavior in regards to a corpse demonstrates the presence of the interdit of death from the origin of humankind; the corpse is not an ordinary object, but rather, one which evokes both fascination and fear. This distinction of the corpse as different from other objects marks the separation of the profane and the sacred, because "les objets réservés par un tel sentiment terrifié sont sacrés" (OC 34). Thus, there existed a certain interdit which controlled behavior and attitudes concerning death; this interdit, in a sense, protected sacred objects from the profane activity of the world.2
From the practice of inhumation which privileged the corpse as a sacred object, Bataille concludes that our early ancestors lived according to a system of interdits that limited one's approach to sacred objects and activities. The interdits served as logical "rules" which promoted useful activity in the world of work. In his book L'Erotisme, Bataille explains, "sans le primat de l'interdit, l'homme n'aurait pu parvenir à la conscience claire et distincte, sur laquelle la science est fondée. L'interdit élimine la violence et nos mouvements de violence..." (L'Erotisme 45). But, as noted earlier in this paper, the world of work -- logically controlled by the system of interdits -- is eventually surpassed by the world of the game; in other words, an interdit, while regulating certain behavior, also invites an inevitable transgression which surpasses the proposed limits.3 The world of the game is the world of transgression, as it is the realm of the sacred. Relating this back to our discussion of art, we now see that the cavern paintings, detached from any use-value that they may have had, belong to the world of the game; artistic creation transgresses the useful, profane activity of the world. Bataille elaborates upon this notion with the concept of the fête -- a designated time for limited transgression. At this time, the desire to break the rules proposed by the interdits became possible through the practice of religious transgression; here, work was sacrificed to play. And art thus emerges from the fête:
Il nous importe ici que, dans son essence, et dans la pratique, l'art exprime ce moment de transgression religieuse, qu'il exprime seul assez gravement et qu'il en soit la seule issue. C'est l'état de transgression qui commande le désir, l'exigence d'un monde plus profond, plus riche et prodigieux, l'exigence, en un mot, d'un monde sacré. Toujours la transgression se traduisit en formes prodigieuses: telles formes de la poésie et de la musique, de la danse, de la tragédie, ou de la peinture. (OC 41)
The transgressive movement of artistic creation assumes the presence of acknowledged interdits; in the setting of the fête, these interdits are momentarily lifted in order to provide the opportunity for the penetration of a sacred world. It is precisely this penetration by art into a more profound world which, according to Bataille, announces humankind as we know it.4 From its moment of origin, art is conscious transgression, and according to Bataille, this characteristic also identifies modern art, which begins with the painting of Edouard Manet.
Manet's painting not only transgressed the ideals of classical painting, but also the expectations and desires of a society which stubbornly upheld these outdated ideals. These two points of transgression remain, of course, inextricably linked, yet one concerns the actual change in painting which Manet precipitated, while the other involves the negative reaction to this change. In both cases, Manet's painting revolts against the adherence to a set of values which no longer made sense in his contemporary society. Bataille explains the relationship of the past socio-political structure and that of Manet's time:
J'insiste sur un point fondamental: ce grand monument didactique - château, église, temple, ou palais - qu'innomabrablement le passé fit et refit, ce monument parlant et proclamant l'autorité - qui courbait la foule entière - le moment vint où il perdit le sens qui le fondait; il se disloqua: son langage devint à la fin l'éloquence prétentieuse, dont la foule, autrefois soumise, se détourna. (OC 127)
Although society no longer supported the authority of the "edifice" to which Bataille refers, art continued to reproduce this empty structure. This is not to say, of course, that all painting before Manet remained "classical," since romanticism identified itself, to a large degree, with a rejection of the classical period. But, for Bataille, eloquent painting persisted up until the work of Manet -- this eloquence derived from classical ideals, and thus supported the past edifice. Furthermore, society unwittingly accepted and encouraged the use of the classical edifice, even though it continually revolted against the socio-political ideals of the past. Why else would Manet's work have provoked such a negative reaction? It became Manet's "sacrificial duty" to fight through the personal suffering of public rejection because, as Bataille suggests, "même les rieurs sans le comprendre, attendaient ces figures qui les révulsaient mais qui plus tard empliraient ce vide qui s'ouvrait en eux" (OC 123). Manet delivered an unwilling society from the past by replacing an empty structure with something much more profound.5
The strong emphasis which Bataille places on the negative reaction to Manet's work supports the notion that the paintings transgress a specific system of interdits. Bataille points out that Manet's work does not reject the painting of Rembrandt or le Titien, but rather, the painting of his contemporaries which reproduced many aspects of classical painting in a context where it became "éloquence prétentieuse" (OC 127). The celebrated painters of Manet's time -- Delacroix and Ingres among them -- simply recognized the presence of an interdit and respected its boundaries. In this case, the interdit controlled behavior and attitudes regarding the edifice and ideals of classical art; there existed certain rules that had long been in place, and no one dared to break these rules. But as we will see in Bataille's consideration of Manet's paintings, the interdit desperately needed to be transgressed in order to reach a more profound and sacred height. What Manet refuses to represent in his work at first feels like an absence, but later reveals itself as a powerful presence -- this presence resulting from an art which no longer remains submissive to empty discourse.
So what exactly constitutes this éloquence prétencieuse which Manet transgresses? First, Manet rejected the theatricality of the classical style, above all, because he felt that dramatic posing embodied a specific, grandiose discourse. In his essay, Bataille cites Antonin Proust's comments on Manet's attitude towards his models; Proust remembers Manet's disgust at a model who "poitrinait, faisait saillir ses muscles et prenait des poses héroïques" (OC 126). Manet was not interested in painting these eloquent poses, but rather, preferred to represent his models in more "natural" positions which did not pretend dramatic discourse. For art to be autonomous -- concerned only with the technique, forms, and colors of its composition -- the language of past painting needed to be abandoned. Bataille remarks that even Manet's first compositions, (he names Vieux musicien and Gilles), demonstrate the rejection of eloquent posing and theatricality: "Les modèles ont été disposés comme le seraient des acteurs, le rideau tombé, dans le désordre d'un entracte" (OC 127). Bataille uses the image of the theater in order to make reference to theatrical painting, but more importantly, the image of the fallen curtain between acts also enforces the feeling of absence we first perceive Manet's work -- we may be at the theater, but there definitely is no play taking place. In order to recognize the absence in Manet's painting, we need to capture what we think should be there. This recalls Bataille's concept of transgression which necessarily remains conscious of the interdit; when Manet refuses to provide theatricality and eloquent poses, he still subtly invokes the structure he has transgressed. He purposefully, and consciously, silences the subject matter of his painting, thus transgressing the discursive attributes of eloquent painting; this silence serves to negate language and narrative, while emphasizing the autonomy of the painting. In this way, Manet's work avoids reinforcing the authoritarian edifice of past painting, and therefore does not subordinate itself to a message. His painting resides in the world of the game because it is concerned only with itself, remaining detached from any discursive use in the profane world -- and it achieves this through transgression.
Another way that Manet's painting rejects the eloquence of classical painting concerns the portrayal of the subject. Bataille develops this idea through a comparison of Goya's Le Trois Mai and Manet's L'Exécution de Maximilien. The communication of these two paintings helps us to capture the effect which Manet produces in his reprisal of Goya's subject matter. Bataille first praises Goya's painting:
La vision de cet homme criant, qui ne surgit que pour mourir, la scène de fusillade que nous appelons Le Trois Mai, et l'apparition de la mort elle-même. De la mort qui, justement, nous échappe, que jamais en principe nous ne connaissons, puisque la mort, en se produisant, détruit la connaissance. (OC 132)
Clearly, Bataille admires the eloquence of Goya's painting, as he suggests the painting captures the sacred moment of death.6 Still, Manet will take this execution scene a step further as he "peignit la mort du condamné avec la même indifférence que s'il avait élu pour objet de son travail une fleur, ou un poisson" (OC 132). So, Manet reproduces the scene of anguish in Goya's painting, which forces us to face the moment of death, yet without the anguish -- he makes it express nothing. L'Exécution de Maximilien does indeed tell a story, (which is an exception in the work of Manet), yet it does so with a striking indifference to the story (OC 132). He refuses to reproduce the feeling that the story would assumably evoke, because the painting itself -- solely as the application of paint to a canvas -- will not be subordinated to any story it tells. Again, by evoking Goya's work and the narrative character of eloquent painting, Manet transgresses the interdits which protect the "values" of art, making sure to demonstrate the conscious and deliberate character of this act.
According to Bataille, Manet's Olympia demonstrates the reduction of painting to the simplicity of what the painter sees. No text can explain the presence of the woman in this work, for the painting erases the text, along with any possibility for one. Bataille writes:
Dans son exactitude provocante, elle n'est rien; sa nudité (s'accordant il est vrai à celle du corps) est le silence qui s'en dégage comme celui d'un navire échoué, d'un navire vide: ce qu'elle est, est l'"horreur sacrée" de sa présence - d'une présence dont la simplicité est celle de l'absence. (OC 142)
The reduction of the posing woman to nothing signifies the death of the subject -- no longer is she the divine figure represented in le Titien's Venus d'Urbin, (which serves as a point of reference for Manet's Olympia), but rather, she emerges from the dark background as the simple brushstrokes on canvas. Much like L'Exécution de Maximilien plays off of Goya's Le Trois Mai in order to more clearly demonstrate the indifference to the eloquent violence of the scene, Olympia transforms a dignified goddess into the simple nakedness of humanity. Olympia does not belong to the world of mythology; she opposes it. Bataille explains, "L'Olympia, comme la poésie moderne, est la négation de ce monde: c'est la négation de l'Olympe, du poème et du monument mythologique, du monument et des conventions monumentales" (OC 145). Bataille makes the important parallel to modern poetry here; Olympia, in her operation of silence, announces her presence through negation.
Finally, when considering Olympia's presence as the death of the subject, she fits interestingly into Bataille's theory of art as transgression. The "nothingness" of Olympia represents a sacrificial moment -- keeping in mind that it is the "nothing" that the painting represents, rather than the subject matter which simply announces this "nothing". As he accomplishes in L'Exécution de Maximilien, Manet destroys the significance of the subject in Olympia; the subject, as a means of positive representation, is sacrificed to the autonomy of the painting. The status of the figure in the painting, in relation to her surroundings, emphasizes this sacrificial moment. Bataille suggests:
Dans le secret, le silence de la chambre, Olympia, parvint à la raideur, à la matité de la violence: cette figure claire, composant avec le drap blanc son éclat aigre, n'est atténuée par rien. La servante noire entrée dans l'ombre est réduite à l'aigreur rose et légère de la robe, le chat noir est la profondeur de l'ombre...Les notes criées de la grande fleur pendant sur l'oreille, du bouquet, du châle et de la robe rose, se détachant seules de la figure: elles en accusent la qualité de "nature morte". Les éclats et les dissonances de la couleur ont tant de puissance que le reste se tait: rien alors qui ne s'abîme dans le silence de la poésie. (OC 147)
In viewing Manet's painting, we witness the death of the subject. Olympia is always at play with the viewer's expectations of a subject with significance, (even more so when we recognize the reference to le Titien's Vénus), and for this reason, we find ourselves in a position to observe the sacrifice. The non-living objects in the painting embrace the figure as one of their own, and at the same time, deny the viewer her/his "desired" association with this figure. As Olympia seems to pass from living to dead, the viewer experiences the moment of transgression, which is, essentially, sacrificial. And as we saw earlier, it is from this point of view that Bataille develops his analysis of the cavern paintings of Lascaux. He links sacrifice, transgression and art, explaining:
L'antiquité voyait dans le sacrifice le crime du sacrificateur qui, dans le silence angoissé des assistants, mettait la victime à mort, le crime où le sacrificateur, en connaissance de cause et lui-même angoissé, violait l'interdit du meurtre. Il nous importe ici que, dans son essence, et dans la pratique, l'art exprime ce moment de transgression religieuse, qu'il l'exprime seul assez gravement et qu'il en soit la seule issue. (OC 41)
Manet's crime against the "life," or significance, of Olympia demonstrates Bataille's concept of religious transgression. She is sacrificed out of the desire for something more -- "l'exigence d'un monde plus profond, plus riche et prodigieux, l'exigence, en un mot, d'un monde sacré" (OC 41).
Just as Bataille's analysis of the cavern paintings of Lascaux helps us to appreciate the revolutionary character of Manet's work, his analysis of Manet perhaps sheds some light upon the artistic creation of Lascaux, which, in a sense, will always remain hidden in the dark. Theories of origin and birth necessarily rely upon acts of blind interpretation, and thus announce themselves as impossible from the outset, whereas the study of Manet avoids this preliminary impossibility. The study of the artistic transgression of a 19th century painter remains drastically more approachable than the study of the ways of our earliest ancestors. So if we accept the parallel between Manet's transgression and the primitive humans' transgression, the art of the cavern painting perhaps becomes more accessible. While we will always remain at a loss for words which can sufficiently "explain" those sacred things which surpass language, the consideration of art as transgression allows us to recognize the important movement which delivers one from the profanity of world, as it offers something much more profound.
1It must be noted that the Neanderthal is not a direct ancestor of the Homo sapiens, but the archeological findings which come from the Neanderthal are still able to represent the period which precedes the Homo sapiens.
2 Bataille discusses the interdit of death not only because it is a fundamental interdit which arises in almost all of his work, but also because the sepulchers provide clear support for the existence of this specific interdit. In Lascaux, Bataille explains that the interdit of death strongly suggests the existence of a system of interdits -- the corpse would thus represent one sacred object among others.
3 Bataille employs the concept of the game as the binary opposite of work because the game represents self-contained activity which has no useful intention. The game exists only for itself, rather than trying to produce anything of use. For Bataille, it is necessary to consider art within this same scope.
4 Bataille carefully develops his reasons for equating the transgression of interdits with a new form of humanity -- one which resembles our own far more than that of the Neanderthal. The act of surpassing the world of work marks a paradoxical movement which, on one hand, fully distinguishes human from animal, and at the same time serves as a sort of "reach" back to our animal, violent desires that are normally controlled by a system of interdits -- remembering, of course, that the transgression does not constitute an absence of interdits, but rather, the conscious lifting of interdits at a designated time.
5 It seems relevant to make note that Manet's society identified itself with industry, utility, and a new social order. The modern artist struggled to find his/her place in this new context, which is perhaps part of the reason that Bataille briefly discusses Manet in relation to Baudelaire. With Lascaux in mind, we might choose to see 19th century society as roughly parallel to the world of work which art eventually transgresses.
6 Although Bataille does not assert that Goya broke with the eloquence of classical painting, he credits the painter for reproducing the edifice in order to show its absurdity. This does indeed demonstrate a certain resistance to the ideals of classical painting, even if it does not achieve the complete transgression of the edifice, which Bataille attributes to Manet.
Bataille, Georges. L'Erotisme. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1957.
-----. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.