The Conceptual And The Incomplete

            Francois Jullien is a critical thinker who offers a unique collaboration of contemporary western philosophy, classical Chinese philosophy, and art. This blog articulated one of his works in a posting entitled The Contemporary Nude, November 8, 2009. There we considered his correlation between the existence of the nude in western art and the philosophical emphasis on “being”, a word he points out doesn’t exist in classical China. With “The Great Image Has No Form, Or On The Nonobject Through Painting” (2009 University of Chicago Press) he expands on this distinction between the philosophy of these cultures and their art. The classical Greek culture’s emphasis on being, and that if it can be, then it can be shown (materially or abstractly, with the emphasis on “be”), and therefore exists, results in a total devaluation of the non existent; nothing can be said about what does not exist (or everything can be said about it). The classical Chinese culture’s emphasis on the Tao and the Book of Change, where “there is” and “there is not” beget transitions and process, placed great value on what is not (though no value in “proving” existence). According to Jullien, the Greek outlook evolved into the emphasis on definition, clarity and completeness in western art. The Chinese outlook produced work that valued suggestion, haziness (where things go in and out of being), and the incomplete. To say that essentially western culture valued its qualities of visual art because they bespoke the thinking of the west would be quite adequate. Jullien points out that ‘to say that essentially Chinese art valued its qualities…’ would be totally out of bounds, not even within the ball game. He proposes this on account of the complete disinterest in what is ”essential” within the classic philosophy that evolved from the Tao and the Book of Change. To speak of “essential” is to define, clarify, as completely as possible. This was not the thinking of the classical philosophy of China. As Jullien puts it: “More radical than the question of what one thinks is the question of what one thinks to think – or does not think to think, does not think to question.” (pg. 80).

            Western visual art certainly has always been about what one represents with clarity, definition and completeness. This is still the case with much art produced by “Sunday afternoon painters” (the flowers or landscapes are portrayed so completely- “essentially”, the portrait looks “just like” the person portrayed- with nothing left out, etc.). What is surprising is to realize that it is also the case with what is considered the more refined, educated and “culturally representative” art. Here, the 20th century’s experimentation and fulfillment (of the end of art) resulted in the “conceptual” emphasis of today’s art. Yet the artists who rely on this, operate from an underlying, unrecognized assumption that what they conceive (conceptualize) is complete, a complete thought. Clarity and definition then follow in the various manipulations of presentation (akin to the “Sunday afternoon painters”). This has been the case historically in western art. Were this not the case, were it the case that the artist knew, acknowledged, and recognized that their “conception” is always incomplete, there would be no justification for the originality, uniqueness, or authority of the work or its creator. Anything could become anything, and be critiqued as just that. No, the conceptual is tied to the western tradition of art. The conceptual is “what one thinks to think”. To think incompletely, is to be outside the conceptual. The incomplete cannot be conceptualized.

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