Ad Reinhardt, Theology, and Apophatic Artby William Lyons
In many religions there have been theologians who argued for an Apophatic Theology. Apophatic is a classical Greek word meaning “removed from speech” or “unsayable,” so that an apophatic theology is one holding that you cannot use human language to speak meaningfully about God, because He (and strictly speaking even the word “He” cannot be used regarding God) is unknowable and completely “other.” In Christianity this view is probably most closely associated with early Eastern theology, and then, most famously, with the late medieval thought of the German theologian Meister Eckhart. Since his time onward this apophatic theology became known as the via negativa or “negative way,” because it tells us that we simply cannot say anything meaningful about God. Later theologians came to modify this view by saying that keeping silent is not theology: not a study of God, but silence. Hence they developed, alongside this via negativa, a via positiva or “positive way” (in theological jargon, kataphatic theology). They argued that one by-product of the gift of God-inspired texts, such as the Old Testament and the New Testament, is that we are handed a series of metaphors or figures that have been legitimized by God, enabling us to describe God positively. So we have a divine warrant to speak of God or, in a Christian trinitarian theology, of a personage of God as “a judge,” or “a good shepherd,” or “a savior,” or “a father,” or “a creator,” and so on.
For many years I have wondered whether an apophatic aesthetics, mirroring apophatic theology, might be the correct way to answer one of the basic questions in philosophy of art, “What is the goal aimed at in artistic creativity?” The short answer is that, if one adopts an apophatic aesthetics, there is none: no goal that must be attained. It is futile for us aestheticians, art critics, artists, or anyone else, to issue rules or dictats about what art ought to do or be. As soon as someone attempts to do so, some artist will yet again rightly produce a work of art which is contrary to that ordained goal and hailed, sooner or later, as innovative and historically important. To put this matter perversely: the goal of art is the unsayable or unnameable (the echoing of Beckett is deliberate) because, quite simply, there is any goal that you like, or no goal if that’s what you like.
However, mirroring the view that apophatic theology ended up being no theology at all, a purely apophatic aesthetics might end up being no aesthetics at all. While an aesthetician or critic does not have the aid of inspired texts, I suggest that he or she could and should say something pertinent and positive. Through comparison with what has gone before—that is, with the history of art—the art critic or historian can and may assert with good reason that works of art ought not to be meretricious, pointlessly repetitive, etc. Obversely, while the art critic or art historian cannot and should not say what a work of art should be or should be doing, he or she can praise its freshness of invention or enterprising use of materials, or its arresting content, or consummate skills, or its humor or apt satire, and so on. Thus the equivalent in aesthetics of the via positiva turns out to be a via comparativa with both positive and negative aspects.
So where does the Ad Reinhardt of my title fit into this? It is not just that Reinhardt was born a hundred years ago, in December 1913, so that this is his centenary year. He is my model apophatic artist, famous for his very challenging black paintings, that group of large unframed square canvases subdivided subtly into bilaterally symmetrical nine-square forms, distinguishable only by subtly varied shades of black, with titles no more descriptive than the words “Abstract Painting.” To some viewers they might appear to be anti-art or no art at all, or, with a helpless gesture of the hand, “What can I say?” In short, they are a very challenging test case for any aesthetics, including an apophatic one. I myself first assumed that Reinhardt’s black paintings must have been an exercise in Dada iconoclasm. But Reinhardt, though sometimes a humorist, definitely took these paintings seriously; and he was always seriously engaged with art as such, as distinct from art in the marketplace or in the news.
Well then, how may Reinhardt’s black paintings accord with an apophatic aesthetics? Ad would be delighted, I feel, that the apophatic approach is non-prescriptive, allowing even of such goals as just painting a canvas black (or white, or red), or possibly even just leaving it unpainted. What’s more, he might say that abstract art fits such an aesthetic especially well, as any abstract artist who does not lose his or her nerve will aptly entitle an abstract painting “Abstract Painting,” or “Untitled,” or “Painting No. 3,” or leave the title slot completely blank. Art for its own sake is at least as legitimate a goal as any other.
But to say that, I suspect, still leaves out so much of what Reinhardt was wanting to “say” in his black paintings. There is a consensus among those who best know his life and work that Reinhardt was one of the few members of the Abstract Expressionist generation to paint authentically spiritual paintings and to do so with real conviction on his part. In short, there is a curious return, here, to the theological comparisons with which I began.
So how could such uncompromisingly abstract art as the black paintings have any religious or spiritual meaning or, given that they are definitely not art-iconoclastic, any meaning at all? They seem to be just black nothingness. What could come out of focusing on nothingness? In fact, quite a lot; and here are some possibilities.
To have a viewer focus on a square of black or blackish hues, with not even a frame to distract the eye, may be a way of deliberately forcing the viewer to withdraw to the very basics of vision, and thereby engage more deeply with the nature of visual art. Many philosophers, such as William James with his radical empiricism, have been interested in trying to get behind our adult vision, as “ruined” by our daily commerce, to a sort of visual (and auditory) pre-existence, a sort of visual innocence. Hence James’s interest in the blooming buzzing life of infants.
Other philosophically notable contemplators of nothingness were the existentialists, who saw it as the end of all creatures, indeed, eventually of all things, for death was our return to non-existence. The majority of the existentialists did not believe in an afterlife (Gabriel Marcel being a notable exception); so that to live an authentic life was to live each day knowing that one was a Being-unto-death with no escape.
However there is another mode of contemplation of nothingness, religious or at least spiritual, that may be closest to Reinhardt’s vision. By my cursory understanding, some forms of Buddhism seek to contemplate “nothingness” in the sense of seeking a state of mind emptied of all thoughts and desires, especially those pertaining to the self. This has been thought morally good in the way, I often think, Iris Murdoch meant when she said that the moral life is the constant fight against the self.
William Lyons of Dublin, is a perennial student of philosophy and observer of art and, now that like a medieval abbey doorkeeper he is of ripe age and tried virtue, has become a writer of philosophical dramas--the world premiere of his last play Socrates and his Clouds was in London in June 2013.