An empty teacup and a palace of mirrors
This article is an adaption of the lecture that was given as opening of the first Still Sunday festival in Brebl, November the 10th. Like the lecture, it consists of a number of fragments that are connected in a rather loose, associative way without it being an easy ongoing story. Its purpose is not to tell you how it works, not to explain the value of art nor to indicate in a directive way how to look at art. What I have tried here is to say something about what I think is a desirable approach to the world and to art. About the essence of the human existence and the role that art can play in this.
Prologue: A cup of tea
The professor arrived at the Zen master’s house. Jubilant about all the titles and diplomas he had acquired during his long years of study, he introduced himself. He then told the Zen master the reason for his visit, namely learning the secrets of Zen.
Instead of explaining everything to him, the master invited him for a cup of tea. When the cup of tea was almost full, the Zen master, who was apparently distracted by something, kept pouring the tea, which made the tea flow all over the table.
The professor exclaimed: The cup is full! Any more will not fit in.
The master put down the teapot and answered: You are just like the cup. Filled to the brim with opinions and prejudices. Unless you empty your cup, you will not gain insight.
“It is the works of art that we meet with, that can move us emotionally.”
What is art?
It is important to clarify some concepts. ‘Art’ is a concept, a catch-all term with vague and dynamic boundaries and a beautiful design for various superficial and profound opinions and discussions.
Artworks on the other hand, are specific, existing, present. It is the works of art that we meet with, that can move us emotionally.
Language and desire.
The empty tea cup from the well-known Zen story is a metaphor. It’s almost impossible to speak about art without using metaphors and analogy, because there is an incongruity between words and images that simply cannot be bridged by direct description. But something is going on with language in itself as well: you can never exactly say what you mean to say.
Michel Foucault describes in Les mots et les choses – “The words and the things” – the beginning of creation: the names of things, given by the first man (created by God in His image) to the animals, plants, trees , stars, in short everything in creation, coincided with the things themselves. The names being the things and the things being their names. The language was completely transparent. That only changed with the construction of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent confusion of tongues. The original, divine language disappeared behind a veil of references. The linguistic sign or word now refers to something else.
You do not have to take the biblical story literally: that itself functions as a metaphor as well.
We are born as human beings and at the outset there is no separation between ourselves and the world around us. We do not have a ‘self’ yet that distinguishes us from the world and from the other, our being is unmediated. The French philosopher and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan calls this paradisiacal condition ‘jouissance’: literally translated joy. But almost immediately after our birth we are absorbed into the world of language, the world of the people, the symbolic order. We get a name, we are brought up, marked by the expectations of others: parents, family. That is necessary for a human being to live and survive, but we lose the phenomenon of unity with the world. The gap between what Lacan calls the symbolic order, the world of language and words, and our original being in the world, causes a loss that entails a lasting sense of desire. We were expelled from The human being is defined by a loss, and from that loss human existence is marked by desire.
Art shows us both desire itself and a glimpse or suspicion of the other side of the gap, the indivisibility, the unmediated unity with the world. What we have been granted are those brief moments that we experience as undivided, fulfilled and whole: the Zen master’s Satori or enlightenment, the mystic’s meetings with God.
‘Verlangen’, Frank Tarenskeen
The land-art artist Andy Goldsworthy, who performs magnificent things in and with nature, experiences these moments when, while climbing a mountain, he leans into the strong wind trying to find a balance.
Creed of a painter
‘I paint for friendly, benevolent people with open eyes and an open mind.’
‘Not filling your canvases with paint, but with love.’
An artwork as a palace of mirrors: Las Meninas (1656) Diego Velazquez.
The fact that you must have an empty head and an unprejudiced and open minded approach to artworks, which in itself costs a lot of effort, does not mean that you do not have to take the time to look actively.
Countless pages has been written about the famous masterpiece of the 17th century Spaniard Diego Velazquez, among others by (again) Michel Foucault in Let Mots et les Choses. However, I’m not going to tell you what to see. I’m going to ask some questions. During the lecture in Brebl I discussed the answers with the audience. I will not do that here, the questions can serve as directions. The answers can be thought up by the reader and perhaps discussed with others.
– Who is the main character of this painting, to whom is the eye drawn initially?
– Who is the person left on the canvas and what is it he is doing?
– How is a self-portrait usually made? What could we conclude from that
for the whole canvas?
– Yet something is wrong: besides the door opening with the man in it, something else lights up on the back wall. What could it be?
something on. What could that be?
– So we do not actually look in a mirror. Whose position are we as spectators put in?
In conclusion: the performance on the painting is a play with reality and appearance, which is played via us, the spectators. It only opens up to us when we activate our gaze instead of consuming it passively. We are forced to ask questions about the nature of representation, the ratio between what is real and what is representation, without expecting perfect answers.
But that is not yet everything. We get the impression of a more or less coincidental snapshot, the composition is lively and balanced, the paint treatment is superior, in short it is also ‘just’ very beautiful. It is worth taking the time and asking yourself: what is happening here?
The painting inspired Picasso to paint an extensive series of his own interpretations, in which the palace of mirrors that Velazquez presented to us, was first ‘broken into pieces’, and then reassembled again, which was Picasso’s way of adding a new layer of meaning.
Pablo Picasso – Las Meninas. After Velazquez