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image of Danish Yearbook of Philosophy

AESTHETICS OF “PURE SIGN” ADORNO, MERLEAU-PONTY AND ART AS AN ENDLESS REINVENTION OF REALITYContemporary painting has often dealt with signs, graffiti, calligraphy, and more precisely with aesthetic objects that take the form and appearance of signs, but which do not belong to any existing alphabet. These are forms that imitate signs but are what we might call “pure signs”, i.e. signifiers without a signified. This form of artistic experimentation (of which Paul Klee is the precursor) has elicited parallel and convergent analyses by Merleau-Ponty and Adorno. These authors show the ways in which this kind of artistic experimentation at once renews reflection on language and reflection on art, through a more fundamental reflection on the cognitive actions that they necessarily share, namely deciphering and interpretation. By asking how signs that have no conventional meaning can still be identified as signs–the “decryption” of which is therefore impossible–we re-actualize a question that goes back to Plato and Augustine. How can we begin to investigate and understand what we do not know yet? How does the decryption and interpretation process arise for one who does not yet know if there is something to understand? This type of artwork actually has a meaning, but not in the traditional sense. Although they are unreadable and untranslatable, such works clarifying the meaning of interpretation for us, they free us from a naive and simplistic conception of the process of understanding. They show us that interpretation is always a process of inventing and producing a new meaning, but never of actually finding a pre-existing meaning. In doing so, these kinds of artwork are inseparable from ontological and political issues. Against a conservative view of our relationship to reality, they make us aware that the sense of reality is never simply given nor definitive, and that our relationship to reality contains much more potential than we commonly believe.

Affiliations: 1: Centre de philosophie juridique et politique, Université de Cergy-Pontoise


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