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Michel Henry: Art and the Phenomenology of Life (v)

September 29, 2008

Q: In relation to what you have said about the body, you have developed a theory of the subject…
Yes, and this is in response to the question of the body’s implication in the work of artwork. Kandinsky deliberately painted life. In relation to this fabulous project the painter no longer painted the world but expressed life, just like music. There is the idea, in fact, that the painting is a mediation between beings, precisely because the “elements” of a painting, according to its expression, are not only objective, but also subjective. Consequently, the one looking at a form experiences the same pathos as the one who conceived it, to the degree in which the form can only be read by reactivation—in a kind of pathetic, or in the least imaginary symbiosis—of forces that are within us, which are identically the forces of the living body of the creator or spectator. If a particular line expresses a particular pathos, then the one looking at the line, retraces it, recreates it with subjective forces, and find herself in the same pathetic state as the one who drew it. Paul Klee’s line implicitly obliges the person who is looking at one of his drawings to relive what Paul Klee had lived. The line’s reality is a completely determined force, for example an unsettling, trembling force that constantly changes. These are not mere metaphors. Intersubjectivity occurs in as much as the painting is a gathering, not of forms but of forces, not of external transcendent colours, but of impressions and emotions. At that moment there is contemporaneity: the spectator becomes the contemporary of forces and impressions that recreate within him an imaginary painting, bearing its external appearance. This is truly a contemporaneity in Kierkegaard’s sense. For Kierkegaard, the believer is one who becomes Christ’s contemporary, while many of Christ’s contemporaries were not! To be contemporary means to repeat in an inner repetition, in the re-actualization of what was previously actualized.

Within the frame of a painting, contemporaneity is this texture of forces and inner emotions of which the painting is the expression. The expression that is not separated from what it expresses, if it is true that at each moment the colour’s reality is within the inner impression, that the form’s reality is in the inner force and without this inner force it becomes a dead thing. Paintings are dead as long as they do not bring about this re-actualization in a subjectivity that can be both that of the spectator and of the creator.

Q: You speak of intersubjectivity as “pathetic community.” Can art then be considered to be the ethical mediation of social being-together? You also stress the necessity of “a phenomenology of transcendental life.” The question now, assuming one accepts this notion of the transcendentality of life, leads in the same direction: could it be said, and why, that art is an ethics of the community or intersubjectivity?
Yes, certainly. So, how? I will give you a purely personal reply, so you can take it or leave it. We are living beings, but that is an extraordinarily difficult metaphysical condition to comprehend, and I should say that my work on Christianity has allowed me a better grasp of the issue. The decisive character of our life is that we are completely passive: we are not the ones who bear us into this life. So, as this condition of our life is invisible, like our life itself is, we do not pay attention to it. In fact, our life is a kind of history not separated from itself, a non-ek-static history, a history in which there is only a single living present, with neither past nor future. We are constantly with ourselves. The self cannot be cut into passing phases or phases that are yet to come, these divisions are not real, they only appear in representation. The living self is actually a kind of self-movement, a self-transformation, like a rolling ball that never parts from itself. Now, we only have this condition of living in a life that is both ours and not ours. We are living due to a life that comes into us, that becomes ours but in whose coming we take no part. So this is an entirely radical metaphysical situation, and in my opinion, only Christianity has explored it with the extraordinary thesis that man is the son of God. God is Life. This means that man is a living being generated in life, in the sole and unique life that is the absolute life, God. Man is thus a living being in life, so that his life is both himself and more than him. This could also be put otherwise—namely in a Nietzschean manner—and claim that this life constantly tends to expand (s’accroître), in other words life is not something that simply continues, but exists metaphysically in a condition that is the expansion of self (l’accroisement de soi).

Let’s take a specific example. Every act of sight tends to see more, every act of understanding tends to understand more, every act of love tends to love more.
Surprisingly this is what Marx thought. Life is both the power of expansion and pathetic, or in other words it continuously experiences itself and never ceases to, otherwise it would die. There is either life or death, and when this reality that we are talking about no longer experiences itself, it is nothing other than death. So the life that experiences itself tends to continuously experience more of itself.

Now, what happens in the work of art? In it, there is a kind of awakening (mise en éveil) of my subjectivity, because the forms, colours and graphic elements arouse within me those forces that they are the expression of. Because its colours, much more so than the dull and indifferent colours of the world that provoke nothing more in me than weak tonalities, will completely actualize those tonalities and give them a much greater dynamic emotional intensity. There is then, through the mediation of the artwork, a kind of intensification of life, in the spectator as in the creator. This is a kind of occurrence of the most essential life that spreads in each of us. The creator is thus someone who creates an ethical work, if it is true that ethics consists in living our bond to life in a more and more intense manner. Here I hold ideas that proceed from my actual orientation in which mingle Kandinsky’s aesthetics, the book that I am writing on Christianity [tr. I am the Truth] and perhaps also the deepening of the phenomenological theses that I have always defended.

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