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Crescent Moon over the Rational: Philosophical Interpretations of Paul Klee


Why, and in what manner, did artist Paul Klee have such a significant impact on twentieth-century thinkers? His art and his writing inspired leading philosophers to produce key texts in twentieth-century aesthetics, texts that influenced subsequent art history and criticism.

Heidegger, Adorno, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, Sartre, Foucault, Blanchot, Derrida, and Marion are among the philosophers who have engaged with Klee's art and writings. Their views are often thought ...

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Crescent Moon over the Rational: Philosophical Interpretations of Paul Klee

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Why, and in what manner, did artist Paul Klee have such a significant impact on twentieth-century thinkers? His art and his writing inspired leading philosophers to produce key texts in twentieth-century aesthetics, texts that influenced subsequent art history and criticism.

Heidegger, Adorno, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, Sartre, Foucault, Blanchot, Derrida, and Marion are among the philosophers who have engaged with Klee's art and writings. Their views are often thought to be distant from each other, but Watson puts them in conversation. His point is not to vindicate any final interpretation of Klee but to allow his interpreters' different accounts to interact, to shed light on their and on Klee's work, and, in turn, to delineate both a history and a theoretical problematic in their midst. Crescent Moon over the Rational reveals an evolving theoretical constellation of interpretations and their questions (theoretical, artistic, and political) that address and continually renew Klee's rich legacies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is a great book. It provides a new understanding of familiar, but not really well known, material by showing not only how Klee's influence on many figures is 'philosophically significant,' but also how the philosophical interpretations of Klee have laid out an intertwined history or tradition. Each page of this book demonstrates Watson's long engagement with phenomenology, the Frankfurt School, and art theory. He is trying to transform the very concept of phenomenology, and he does this quite successfully." —Leonard Lawlor, Penn State University

"Watson's "Crescent Moon Over the Rational" is an impressive book, contributing a great deal to the discussion of art and aesthetics in the 20th century. It presents the work of Paul Klee in an innovative and persuasive configuration: each chapter develops a tapestry of quotations and situates Klee and his interlocutors in the context of a broader philosophical and aesthetic reflection on art, rationality, and the sensuous in modernity." —Krzysztof Ziarek, SUNY Buffalo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804761253
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen H. Watson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Tradition(s) II: Hermeneutics, Ethics, and the Dispensation of the Good (2001).
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Crescent Moon over the Rational

Philosophical Interpretations of Paul Klee
By Stephen H. Watson

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6125-3

Chapter One

On the Withdrawal of the Beautiful Adorno's and Merleau-Ponty's Readings of Paul Klee In paintings themselves we could seek a figured philosophy. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (EM: 168) In recent aesthetic debates, especially in the fine arts, the concept of écriture has become relevant, inspired probably by Klee's drawings, which approximate scrawled writing. Like a searchlight, this category of modern art illuminates the art of the past; all artworks are writing, not just those that are obviously such; they are hieroglyphs for which the code has been lost, a loss that plays into their content. Theodor Adorno (AT: 124)

IN ONE OF HIS CULMINATING WRITINGS, Time and Being, Martin Heidegger referred to two of Klee's final works, Saint, from a Window (1940 56, in Klee's own catalogue numbering-work number 56 of 1940) and Death and Fire (seen at the opening of Chapter 4 of this book). Standing before them, he said, we "should abandon any claim that they be immediately intelligible" (TB: 1). He immediately adds we would no more demand that they be intelligible than we would of the theoretical physics of Werner Heisenberg. No more than these complex works, we should not expect Heidegger's to be immediately accessible, nor to provide worldly wisdom, nor even a way to the blessed life. Heidegger did not pick these two figures (as well as the poetry of Trakl) accidentally. Though he published little on either Klee or Heisenberg, it is clear that Heidegger was preoccupied with the works of both and their relation to his own thought for a number of years. Indeed, he had contact with Heisenberg in the composition of The Question Concerning Technology, and his interest in Klee was strong enough that he may well have considered a new version of "The Origin of the Work of Art" centered on Klee's work.

That Heidegger joined the issues of contemporary science and painting in his itinerary beyond phenomenology and metaphysics, attempting thereby to think beyond technology, was not unique to his thought. That Klee came to the forefront in these endeavors may not be accidental either. Klee's importance was more than a promissory note for many other major thinkers in the mid-twentieth century in their attempts to grasp the importance of artistic modernism.

I begin to examine this confluence in the works of Theodor Adorno and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two thinkers not usually so conjoined. As shall become apparent, the interpretation of Klee's work will call such distinctions into question. We can provisionally suggest reasons for being suspicious of thinking them distinct. Both undertook radical revision or criticism of the classical phenomenological research program and did so by explicitly connecting Husserl's and Heidegger's work. While Heidegger attempted strictly to distinguish his own Denken from the metaphysical tendencies of Husserlian egology, at the end of his life he still defended the phenomenological account of rational motivation and its explication of experience against reductivist causal accounts. This is crucial in accounting for the nondiscursive and indemonstrable character of art, factors to which both Adorno and Merleau-Ponty appeal in their accounts. Merleau-Ponty attempted a certain revisionist synthesis of Husserl's and Heidegger's work, explicitly from the outset of his Phenomenology of Perception. Recently published manuscripts reveal anew the effect of this ongoing synthesis.

Adorno, on the other hand, wrote steadily on Husserl over the course of four decades, beginning with his doctorate in 1924 and culminating with his book on Husserl, a work he described, next to Negative Dialectics, as his most important. Throughout his work it is clear that Heidegger and Husserl are being thought of (and criticized) together. Merleau-Ponty, initially seemingly a fellow traveler of Husserl, ultimately distanced himself in passing once more through the later work of Heidegger. Both Adorno and Merleau-Ponty criticize the lack of historical reflection in Husserl's program on the basis of the dialectical critique that Adorno traced at least as far back as Fichte (AT: 343). In accord with an attempt to elaborate the inseparability of the conceptual and aconceptual that had accompanied the itinerary of Phenomenology since its origins in classical German thought, both argued for an account of interpretation that involved the mutual envelopment of imagination and thought, a movement that amounted to less a simple return to lived experience (Erlebnis) than its development (Erfahrung; AT: 346). If there were essences (and this if was, in many respects, a strong one for both), they would be less scientifically intuited than conceptually elaborated; as Merleau-Ponty put it, they would need to be "read" (IPP: 19; PhP: 108).

The question will be what separates them in this step beyond the Idealism of the past. Both Adorno and Merleau-Ponty privileged the aesthetic (via the work of Klee), but both criticized the account of instrumental or operational rationality that has precluded our grasping the truths of the aesthetic dimension. Notwithstanding standard interpretations of these authors that would divide them by language, tradition, and culture and construe them philosophically to represent different schools, we need to think of them as belonging to a much closer "constellation," to use Benjamin's term. Their mutual accounts enable us to say something not only about the lingering status of phenomenological discourse but about its links with modernity, or aesthetic modernity and the problem of the work of art. In this we can witness the very issue of traditionality reconstituted in their midst, or perhaps between them. Adorno put the point directly in these terms: the critical question Kant omitted is how a thinking "obliged to relinquish tradition might preserve and transform tradition" (ND: 54-5); Merleau-Ponty claimed, even somewhat more ironically, that "establishing a tradition means forgetting its origins" (S: 159).

In both cases the irony betrayed a complicated relation to German Romanticism. The German Romantics, perhaps especially after the Schlegels, found the concept of the Beautiful both problematic and everywhere "mannered." This is the chief instance of the fragmentation of their complicated postenlightenment status: both "believing in tradition and always straining at new insanities." Klee would not be far removed from this. Praising Kandinsky early on (1912), Klee stated, "The currents of yesterday's tradition are really becoming lost in the sand ... and I hail those who are working toward the impending reformation" (D: 266). What is divided between them is less the differences of external perspectives than a rendering of the truth of the aesthetic, and, ultimately, what it implies for the truths of philosophy.

In this regard, Adorno was clear that even the most archaic of philosophemes concerning art, the concept of the Beautiful itself, should not be discarded, dispensed with altogether, or "placed on the Index"-even if, for both political and historical reasons, he placed it in abeyance (AT: 50). For Adorno, this brings us closer to the account of the sublime, in which Kant anticipates the spiritualization and the emancipatory task latent in the artwork (AT: 92). While readers of Merleau-Ponty would search in vain for an overriding application of the concept of the Beautiful, this does not mean that he simply emphasized the sublime. His whole enterprise is summed up by reference to primordial, embodied intentional experience, the unity of imagination, and the understanding "before the object" and prior to conceptual subsumption as modeled on the account, in Kant's third Critique, of reflective judgment of art (PhP: xvii). Kant's retrieval of the symbolics of the Beautiful always hovers near Phenomenology of Perception's attempts to articulate a new transcendental aesthetic. Husserl's account of operative intentionality, on which this book further relies, is said to "take up again the Critique of Judgment" and is criticized when Husserl returned to a constitutive or analytic reflection for its basis (PhP: xvii, 243n). While the importance of artistic expression for grasping prereflective experience nascently accompanied all of his work, in the late period it became paradigmatic, and Klee a paradigm of its paradigm. Merleau-Ponty later attempted to articulate this new transcendental aesthetic by turning back to Schelling and classical German thought-as did Adorno and Klee in different ways. He argued specifically against Malraux's view-invoking Klee (and Cézanne)-that "because painting is no longer for faith or Beauty, it is for the individual" (S: 51). It will involve, instead, a matter of figuring transcendence otherwise.

The Beautiful, as construed in terms of a classical theory of aesthetics, became for both of these thinkers, to use Adorno's term, "sterile." As Klee put it, the modulations of Beauty and Ugliness are relative terms, like dark and light. The Beautiful cannot simply be identified with pleasure, or the Good, with Truth or with Being, all "the topical preferences of philistine culture" (AT: 93). Even construed philosophically, this equation violates historically and logically the (analogical) differential of the transcendentals that it latently evokes. This reduction denies the Beautiful any relation with nonbeing, with what, against the metaphysics of representation and truth, by a certain radiance (ekphanestaton), cannot be presented. It equally denies in pain (or death) the truth that is the ugly, the falsity of illusion and the event in which, to use Adorno's terms, the radiance has turned dark (AT: 50). None of these thinkers could rest easily with this. To use the terms of Nietzsche that so struck Heidegger, there remains a "raging discordance" between Truth and the Beautiful (N I: 142f).

Still, the oppositions are fragile and require further analysis. If Heidegger denied to Beauty the transcendence of form, he did not deny its earthly character, even if he gave few indications of its material event. He did not, as explicitly as Adorno, see metaphysics "slip into material existence" (Meta: 117). Nor did he meditate on the idea of transcendence as a matter of sensuousness as emphatically as Merleau-Ponty (VI: 219). Adorno's infamous attempt to preclude speculative philosophy, "After Auschwitz," itself modeled on the Kantian imperative, belongs here too: "The true basis of morality is to be found in bodily feeling," that is, "the moment of aversion to the inflicting of physical pain on what Brecht once called the torturable body" (Meta: 116). If this is not to say that philosophy returns to the flesh, as did Merleau-Ponty at the end of his career, it surely cannot be claimed to be far from it. While Adorno may not have been as critical of Merleau-Ponty as he was of Heidegger "abstractions," he surely would not at first glance have found there the materialist account of art he himself sought-even if, it could be argued, the two thinkers' politics were closer than might appear prima facie. The question is whether such differences are critical-whether such emphases and lacunae are ultimate, speak to a certain denial, or are, to use Foucault's terms, matters of "local intervention" on particular theoretical issues.

Provisionally, it might be said that at issue here is less the restoration of an old philosopheme and more the articulation of the event at stake within it. The invocation of the Beautiful and the invocation of its imperative exposes an old modern philosopheme that is continually mined by (and doubtless in turn undermines) much of contemporary aesthetics: the figure of transcendental imagination. Following the surrealists, the existentialists, beginning with Sartre's book on the imagination (L'Imaginaire), devoted a good deal of research to this issue. Merleau-Ponty similarly focused on the imagination, though always distancing himself from Sartre's more dualist, Cartesian view. From Phenomenology of Perception onward, Merleau-Ponty specifically attempted to articulate transcendental experience through its bodily incorporation, the body as schematism (PhP: 326f). In "Eye and Mind," the published text in which Klee figures so prominently, Merleau-Ponty articulates the problem of painting as "a figured philosophy," the expression of a continuous birth and a "primordial historicity" that is found at the heart of the visible (EM: 168, 161). While the appeal to such an origin, along with the question of the transcendental it carries with it, may still smack of the ancient transcendentals of metaphysics, Merleau-Ponty is strict; after the purge of modern science, "nothing is left of the oneiric world of analogy" (EM: 171). Was there anything left to say of transcendence at all?

What Adorno saw in the transcendental imagination may be more complex; like Merleau-Ponty with respect to the Beautiful, he almost never invokes the term. This demurral might go hand-in-hand with his criticism of Heidegger, who, following the post-Kantians, elevated transcendental imagination in their speculative venture, what Hegel called the speculative faculty par excellence. Adorno's attempt to materialize the Beautiful, as well as his account of imagination and interpretation, circulates through its archive. It is here the crucial role of imagination combines finitude and history, reason and unreason. Critically, Adorno and Horkheimer, in their analysis of the culture industry, spoke of the "withering of imagination" within "the schema of mechanical reproducibility" (DE: 100). Not without irony, they claimed that in this schema the secret mechanism of the Kantian schematism "has now been unraveled" (DE: 98). Adorno claimed this meant that the "transcendental moment" could no longer be tied to a "point-like subjectivity" but was linked to traditionality. That is, tradition itself is "what Kant called 'the mechanism hidden in the depths of the soul,'" giving rise to a renewal of the critical question (ND: 54-5). Art here becomes exemplary as an event of fragmented or fractured transcendence (AT: 126).

It is perhaps not accidental that Klee forms an interstice for these thinkers and the issues that unite them. His work unites the collisions and transitions between aesthetic modernity and its past; he remained, from very early on, one of its most thoughtful theoreticians. Like many philosophers, in his accounts Klee directly provides protocols for much in Merleau-Ponty's own interpretations, interpretations aimed at articulating both works of art and more broadly the world from which they emerge. This double strategy was not a new one. It accompanied Merleau-Ponty's work almost from the outset and was essential to the resulting conceptual accounts. Arguably, Cézanne provided the schemata for the attempt by Phenomenology of Perception to articulate the inextricably concrete essences of the perceived world and its irreducible "physiognomy of things," attempting to present a phenomenology of concrete appearance (PhP: 322). In his later works, he extended this account to grasp precisely what, beyond the phenomenal image, is more original in its adherence to what remains invisible: the unpresentable at the heart of appearance (VI: 249). It would involve less, that is, a simple disclosure of the physiognomy of concrete appearance rather than an articulation of the event of its emergence, the intertwining of the visible and the invisible. Correlatively, Merleau-Ponty increasingly questioned the opposition of percept and image of the classical phenomenological account (defended by Sartre). Instead, he began to envision a figurative or productive event anterior to both, outlining the Wechsel or reversibility between the visible and the invisible. For Klee, abstraction was a requirement imposed on the process of creating a work; for Merleau-Ponty, this productive figuration was increasingly viewed as original to our (epistemic) adherence to the world-and Klee was one of its models. "Art," as Klee famously put it, "does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible" (N: 76).

From the outset, Klee, like his Bauhaus colleague Kandinsky, linked modernism to the spiritual. He still remained proximate to Cézanne's Romanticism, at a remove from Impressionism. Yet Klee understood the task of art to require a change in optics; it would be less an optics of outer appearance than an optics of "inner being" (N: 66f). He construed the spiritual in art by means of a more cosmological articulation. In the 1923 Bauhaus book Wege des Naturstudiums, Klee sketched-as Grohmann noted, "long before" Heidegger's account of the fourfold in "The Origin of the Work of Art"-a "quartering [Geviert] of artist and object, earth and cosmos." Grohmann's work was a decisive source for Merleau-Ponty's interpretation of Klee. While Merleau-Ponty would later use Heidegger to understand Klee (and vice versa), Grohmann himself claimed that Klee remained closer to Novalis than to Heidegger. As will become further evident, recent scholarship has called these oppositions into question. For now, it suffices to stress, with Grohmann, Klee's insistence on the artist's connection with Nature: "The artist is man, nature himself and a piece of nature" and the artist's hand emerges out of originary chaos, beyond the limits of representation (N: 66f).


Excerpted from Crescent Moon over the Rational by Stephen H. Watson Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures: Works of Paul Klee....................vii
Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Texts....................xi
Introduction: Interpreting Klee: Fusing the Architectonic and the Poetic....................1
1 On the Withdrawal of the Beautiful: Adorno's and Merleau-Ponty's Readings of Klee....................11
2 Gadamer, Benjamin, Aesthetic Modernism, and the Rehabilitation of Allegory: The Relevance of Klee....................35
3 Of Sartre, Klee, Surrealism, and Philosophy: Toward a "Nonprosaic" Conception of Consciousness....................59
4 Heidegger, Klee's Turn, and the Origin of the Work of Art....................93
5 "Fiscourse/Digure": Of Nomadism, the Specter of Oedipus, and the Remnants of the Sublime....................117
6 The Rapture of Sensuousness: "Color Possesses Me ... I Am a Painter"....................151
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