Yves Klein and Interpretation III: Much Ado About Nothings

I know I’ve talked about Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility before, but, wouldn’t you know it, it’s hard to leave a good nothing alone.  As I’ve hinted once or twice before (what blog title?) I’m a fan of Eco’s rather Augustinian school of interpretation that allows for multiple overlapping interpretations of a single work—so let’s have another go at interpreting the Zones, shall we?

Grahame White’s commentary in Radical Philosophy* is, well, not entirely atypical of what you’d expect to find in a mid-70’s leftist journal—lots of Marxism, plenty of class struggle, looks like it was done up on a typewriter, etc.  Mock it as dated if you will, but not everything Marxist/critical theory is bad.

What does it mean that the Zones are immaterial?  White picks out two particular facets: the immaterial cannot make reference to material or cultural “property” as allusive figurative art can and often does, nor can it be transferred by purchase from one owner to another.  I’m not entirely convinced that immateriality frees a work of associations with other cultural baggage (after all, I’ve milked associating Klein and the philosophy his work seems to reference for three posts already), but that last point—that immaterial works cannot change hands—seems to be a rather pregnant one.

So, there has become such a thing as the ‘art market’. What does this imply? A market is a place where goods are bought and exchanged. Works of art are exchanged – either for other works or for money. This constitutes the utter neqation of the concept of art as a tool of cultural function, as something which actually has an operative purpose. To paraphrase Marx, a commodity is something which lies external to ourselves, and which satisfies a desire, be it alimentary or intellectual. It is utilized.
Klein’s zones of pictorial sensitivity defy the art-market. The market is an organ of transfer – yet Klein explicitly states that the owner’s possession of one of his ephemeral Zones is both absolute and intrinsic. Above all, they are not transferable. They are nonnegotiable.

It wasn’t the case that the commissioner received a nothingness from Klein—a purchaser got their nothingness, uniquely and inalienably theirs for time and all eternity.  What economic value is there to something that can’t possibly be sold?  Such a work can have value only as a (non)object of aesthetic experience, but not as an instrumental or financial entity.  Given all the talk about art increasingly “being used as a hedge against inflation,”** an immaterial art work seems to be the only way to create something free from all commercial value, something whose worth even the forces of the art market cannot dictate.

Of course, being immaterial doesn’t just mean a work can’t change hands or price—it means it can’t change at all.  Yes, it’s possible to focus on the matter an artwork is made from, but, as has been pointed out, one of the aims of doing that is to focus on the transitory nature of such objects and how they are always in a state of becoming, rather than pure being.  Matter can always be reshaped and given a new form;*** what is immaterial, though, is freed from the mutability of matter.  The classic example is Plato’s Ideas; indeed, an argument similar to this one is advanced in the opening sections of the Timaeus in order to imply that, if anything is in a state of being rather than flux, it cannot possibly have material existence.  Similarly, Aquinas, in Summa Contra Gentiles I.17, points out that “whatever is matter is in potency,” that is, has the potency to change; whatever is purely actualized, with no possibility of changing, must be immaterial.****

Though I still stand by my assertion that Klein’s out to annihilate the world (or at least a small part of it), it is nice***** to know that, by doing so, he’s (sort of) creating something permanent.  Perhaps that’s another Point of Klein—before the Creation, back when nothingness was all there was, there was at least permanence.  It may have been pure, unimaginable nothingness, it may have been an unchanging and eternal God alone with His ideas of contingents, but it never changed.  By welcoming some nothingness back into Creation, we might get to have our own little bit of that pre-primordial stasis all to ourselves.

*I’m writing about neo-post-Marxism for a conservative Catholic readership.  This should be fun.
**And that sentence was written in 1974—back when the art market was less insanely overinflated than it is today.  The more things change . . .
***That said, I don’t think the Freer Gallery would take too kindly to you walking into their Korean ceramics collection with a sledgehammer to “impart new forms.”  We here at IL do not usually endorse acts of wanton “recreation” for the sake of proving philosophical points, especially when they involve art we like.
****Which is not to say everything that is immaterial is necessarily unchanging; according to Thomas, there are several classes of immaterial beings (angels, for instance) that change in some way quite regularly.  Klein’s Zones, being nothing at all, are immaterial non-beings, which, among other things, makes them quite hard to write about.******
*****For some value of the word “nice.”
****** I mean, really—you try describing something that doesn’t exist sometime!  I reserve the right to claim, where reasonable, that all seemingly contradictory statements are a result of speaking analogically, rather than actually being contradictory.

One thought on “Yves Klein and Interpretation III: Much Ado About Nothings

  1. Pingback: Ai Weiwei Is a Bad, Bad Man « Intentio Lectoris

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