The Truth of Art

Possibly the most important outcome of Badiou’s philosophy is to add weight to the idea that art generates its own truth or access to truth, an idea often employed in support of modern art in churches. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, among others, acknowledged the indispensable enrichment of theology by non-verbal means of expression. Theology cannot be complete, he insisted, ‘until the arts become an intrinsic moment oftheology itself’ (1982: 24). Rahner’s ideas resonate with those who look to art as another way of both seeing and seeking theological insights, and thus art as a guide to doctrinal truth inaccessible to a purely verbal theology. This is not to regard art as illustrative of doctrinal truth, but rather to recognise art’s specific competencies as visual theology, a point forcefully made by George Pattison, Richard Viladesau and others. In similar fashion, Badiou’s (non-theological) contention is that truths are specific to particular conditions, the inference being that art offers a singular access to meaning or experience irreducible to other realms of truth. In other words, the truth peculiar to art may be found nowhere else other than in and through art. But what actually constitutes the truth of art?

In his Handbook of Inaesthetics (2005a: 10—13) Badiou aligns artistic truth with, firstly, whatever withdraws from identification with established or accepted forms of knowledge. Secondly, an artistic truth is not a single work, but rather an accumulation of works corresponding to an evental moment that institutes a series, sequence or ‘artistic configuration’, but crucially one which breaks with previous artistic forms. Within this series, a particular work of art is simply the local instance of a truth procedure, initiated by an event and comprising a potentially indefinite configuration of works. For Badiou, then, an artistic truth is linked to the persistence of its consequences or, otherwise put, ‘by the way it manages to sustain the consequences of a radical break in an established aesthetic regime’ (Bartlett and Clemens 2010: 84). Finally, an artistic truth is only recognised retrospectively, through the artistic configuration it initiates: not a particular art form, genre, period or movement, but something like the break from figuration or the appearance of the ready-made, which gives birth to a sequence of works. With hindsight, these evental moments come to be seen as seminal, but from the perspective of the consequences they set in motion.3 In this sense, the history of modern and contemporary art has been the progressive incorporation into the domain of art things previously considered extraneous to art. Ultimately, Badiou makes the claim that it is not the work or the author that constitutes an artistic truth, but the artistic configuration produced by an evental rupture. Clearly this precludes the misconception that any single work constitutes a moment of truth. Rather, it is what that work sets in motion: that periodically new configurations appear which radically alter the landscape and language of their situational context, beginning with a particular work or occasion but by no means limited to it, thereby producing a new constellation of possibilities based upon an immanent, singular truth.

But shouldn’t we ask why something that initiates a new conception of art, and ultimately a new tradition with its acolytes and epigones, justifies its elevation as a moment and procedure of truth? Is it that art generates the truth of itself by its very persistence, sustained by the fidelity of its adherents? If so, then this would seem to be a reverse movement from what happens to what is, and therefore the very negation of an evental truth. The idea that art might point towards a condition of truth for philosophy, theology or liturgy is actually easier to entertain: artistic truth as truth-to-itself and its consequences, to the advent of the new that it entails, along with the emergence of new viewers, listeners, and participants open to this fresh approach to reading and using art. But what then of the tension between innovation and the continuity of an existing tradition? Badiou consistently speaks of the event as inaugurating something ‘absolutely new’, signalling fidelity to a ‘pure beginning’ or ‘absolute beginning’ that makes a ‘pure break with the past’ (cited in Phelps 2013: 151). As we saw in an earlier chapter, all such absolute breaks with the past can only be problematic within the context of our discussion, and must be balanced against the more productive notion of beginning from the beginning, a beginning that takes account of, but is undetermined by, what has come before.

Badiou’s emphasis on the vital importance of the new in the production of truth, on potential presents that do not currently exist, and on subtractions from the familiar world, must be set against the persistence of truth in tradition and ritual, which we could call the repetition of the old, but an old which is itself subtracted from what passes for contemporary existence. From a non-theological perspective, Carol Duncan’s work on the civilising rituals of museums explores this productive duality. Her argument that museums ‘constitute an arena in which a community may test, examine, and imaginatively live both older truths and possibilities for new ones’ (1995: 131) would seem to have greater traction when applied to the church as an arena for art. Evidence of past decades has shown that the church does indeed seem to offer a productive context for the testing, examining and living out of ‘older truths’ alongside the potential for experimentation with ‘new ones’, even if the former tends to overshadow the latter. In a church, however, unlike the art museum, it is not usually the art that forms the primary focus for this testing, examining and imaginative living. It is more typically an engagement with the space itself, as a ritualistic rather more than an aesthetic forum (although aesthetic experience inevitably intrudes), and with the liturgical practices that take place there, around creeds, sacraments, processions and seasonal occasions. Rarely is art allowed in its own voice and on its own terms to operate as that testing, examining and imaginative living seen by Duncan to be integral to a community’s response to the art museum and, we could argue, to the living ecclesiastical space. This is one of the corrective possibilities taken up by this book.

Turning to theological sources, in the work of Michel de Certeau we find a clear though unspoken theological debt to Badiou’s concept of event, but with a difference that takes account of older and newer truths. In an essay that asks how Christianity is thinkable or liveable in the context of modernity, Certeau outlines the possibilities for theology and Christian practice enabled by an evental rupture, possibilities conspicuously absent in Badiou’s conditions for philosophy. Christianity, he avers with italicised emphasis, implies ‘a relationship to the event which inaugurated it: Jesus Christ’ (1997: 142). From this inaugural event, two consequences ensue: the will to be faithful to it and the necessity to differ from it. The importance of the Christ event is clearly redemptive, but also transforming, such that it ‘makes possible or in a very real sense permits another type of relationship to the world’ (1997: 143). It is in fact nothing less than an opening to new possibilities inasmuch as its truth ‘is revealed only through new possibilities which it opens. That truth is both shown by the differences in relation to the initial event and hidden by new elaborations’ (1997: 145). As the event disappears into history, its consequences attain ever-greater significance:

The Jesus event is extended (verified) in the manner of a disappearance in the differences which that event renders possible. Our relation to the origin is in the function of its increasing absence. The beginning is more and more hidden by the multiple creations which reveal its significance.

(1997: 146-147)

Thus, one is faithful not to an originary and unchanging truth, fixed in history and tradition, but rather to the circumstances of each contemporary phase of fidelity to that truth such that one may speak of ‘a plurality of “Christian” experiences, operations, discoveries, and inventions’ (1997: 146). The event is thereby neither preserved nor repeated. Bauerschmidt’s introduction to Certeau’s text makes this intention clear:

Christianity is clearly not thinkable today in the same way in which it was thinkable in the past; it must always be thought differently, yet in such a way that it perpetually repeats the difference of its founding event. Christianity is a practice of alterity: One is faithful to the event of Jesus Christ precisely in accepting the risk of being Christian differently. It is this event which constantly returns in permitting new ‘spaces’ in which Christianity is enacted differently, not only differently from the way in which it was enacted in the past, but in a heterogeneous plurality in the present.

(1997: 138)

Periodically, theological and liturgical truisms are revisited and revised; so too is the place of art within those renewed theological and liturgical frameworks. The paradox, however, is that each new beginning does nothing to diminish the uniqueness of the first.

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