Monthly Archives: November 2009

Joelle Van Dyne(drawing)

Francis Bacon may have been dead for almost twenty years, but his paintings have lost none of their significance in the post-September 11 age of terror. Consider, for example, the way in which Bacon recently appeared in Spike Lee’s September 11 film 25th Hour. When convicted drug dealer Montgomery Brogan toasts to his last night before going to prison, he uses Bacon’s famous toast: “Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends”. The evocation of Bacon is entirely appropriate, given that Monty will come to look like one of Bacon’s portraits in the closing scenes of the film: he asks his childhood friend Francis “Frank” Slaughtery to beat up his face beyond recognition so that he will not be raped on his first night in the can. It’s in Monty’s Bacon face that the many different faces of the immigrants and homosexuals that Monty is cursing in a memorable earlier scene of the film become one, and that the division of their particular identities is overcome in the unifying universal of their violent humanity.

In Lee’s film, it is thus a defacement that leads to ethics and politics. To work within the terms that Gilles Deleuze sets up in his writings on Bacon, one could say that it is not Monty’s face but his head, his meat, that is the site of an ethical and political experience. Whereas the face “is a structured, spatial organization that conceals the head”, Deleuze writes, the head is “the animal spirit of man”. Bacon’s project as a painter is “to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge beneath the face”. Thus, a “zone of indiscernability or undecidability between man an animal” is opened up; “meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernability; it is a ‘fact’, a state where the painter identifies the object of his horror and his compassion”. It is in this state that Monty and the bloody dog who appears at the beginning of the film become one: both Monty and the dog become animal in their state of defacement.

The dialogue that we get in the film’s opening scene is telling, and appears to almost literally evoke Deleuze. After Monty has thrown the bloody dog in the trunk of his car, his sidekick Costa says that he does not understand why Monty wants to save the dog: “He tries to bit your face off”, he says; why does Monty care about the dog? “The dog is meat”, Costa tells him. Let the dog be. But Monty is somehow addressed by this meat and the defacement that it brings—addressed by the reality of becoming that is exposed in this dog’s being beaten to pulp. In both the dog and in Monty, one thus finds examples of others whose face has been smashed up, and whose traumatic reduction to meat actually establishes an ethical and political relation. The ethical and the political shine through in the destruction of the gentrified other, precisely at those moments when one is “losing one’s face”. This is not nothing in an age in which legal existence is dependent upon photo IDs and social relations are dominated by networks such as Facebook. It also invites one to consider the ethics and politics of portrait painting in a new light.

Screenshot from Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953):


References: Lee, Spike. 25th Hour (25th Hour Productions, 2004); Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002. Image: Dan Davis, Joelle Van Dyne, digital drawing, 2009.



Elizabeth Costello takes art seriously. She says: if you believe that art has the capacity to make people better, then you must be prepared to consider that it also has the capacity to make people worse. Doing so heightens the responsibility of the artist, who must now consider not only the positive but also the negative effects of her or his work. If we want to remain human, Costello argues, certain things ought not to be represented. Certain obscene things should remain off-scene. If—big if—we want to remain human…

In an essay entitled “Air War and Literature”, W.G. Sebald regrets the fact that after the Second World War, the Germans failed to represent the harm that was done to them by the allied bombings of civilian targets in Germany. This lack of representation prevented Germany—the perpetrator–to come to terms with the violence it had also suffered—its victimhood. It seems that Sebald believes art has the capacity to make people better. And his art—his fictional works—may indeed hold this capacity. But what about the essay “Air War and Literature”? This is not a work of fiction. Do Sebald’s descriptions of “horribly disfigured corpses [lying] everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed” make the Germans better? Do they?

But perhaps the question of the seen and the obscene needs to be reconceived beyond good and evil, with an interest only in the capacity of art. Art does not have the capacity to make people better or worse; it simply has the capacity. It holds a pure kind of potentiality, cut off from moralized actuality. Like political potentiality, it just “can”—but “what” it can and the moral value of this “what” should perhaps remain unstated. This potentiality marks another kind of off-scene, an off-scene that is not obscene but simply off-scene: outside of the frame, acting from afar, constitutive of the reality that we are witnessing.

Think, in this context, of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington. Washington has his right arm lifted, with his hand seemingly gesturing towards something outside of the painting. This was probably a standard pose at the time; if not, Stuart was possibly representing Washington in the middle of a speech, or else as making a characteristic gesture that would make him more recognizable. But if this painting indeed represents Washington at the moment of the hand-over of power, isn’t it interesting that Washington’s hand would be gesturing to something outside of the frame of his power, to the power of the people that put him in that position, thus marking both the off-scene potentiality of his political power, and of the artwork in which he is being captured?

References: Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003; Sebald, W.G. On the Natural History of Destruction. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2003. Image: Dan Davis, Man Immersed in Dark Matter, pencil and india ink on paper, A4, 2009.