The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida

Thursday, January 24, 2013 § 0

Self-Reflective Esthetics in Modern Painting: Improvisation in Jacques Derrida's Philosophical Text(tures) 

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

The Truth in Painting (1987) by Jacques Derrida is a philosphical essay on the esthetics of painting translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, and published by The University of Chicago Press. This is a well designed book with squared printer's guides which show the evolution of book publishing from the early days of the 1970s when type was pasted onto pages for printing to the modern style of book design. This early trend of pasting blocks of type was noticeable in books from the Tel Quel collection at the Éditions du Seuil, where the circles and lines of graphic design were applied to the semiotic novels of Maurice Roche and the philosophical text of Jacques Derrida: a trend that has continued into the 21st Century with the use of graphic design programs in innovative literature. My own semiotic novel The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending uses innovative typographic design and woodcut signs to create an ultramodern symmetrical structure. The use of graphic design—graphesis—in the philosophical essay The Truth in Painting is a way of enhancing our esthetic appreciation of the text as a work of visual art. The idea  of a parergon is introduced in The Truth in Painting: a supplement that is an additional text, so that a smaller work evolves from a larger work, as a chapter could expand into a small novel on its own.

The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida begins with the section Passe-Partout which is defined as: a key for all which is necessary to understand the significance of this essay in the context of social networking, which includes the immediate network of interconnecting cultural awareness.


Someone, not me, comes and says the words : "I am interested in the idiom in painting." You get the picture: the speaker is impassive, he remained motionless for the duration of his sentence, careful to refrain from any gesture. At the point where you were perhaps expecting it, near the head and around certain words, for example "in painting," he did not imitate the double horns of quotation marks, he did not depict a form of writing with his fingers in the air. He merely comes and announces to you: "I am interested in the idiom in painting."
                                                         The Truth in Painting
                                                         Jacques Derrida

The idiom in painting is a reference to the jazz idiom, which is a personal style of playing, and refers to the sophisticated esthetic of jazz music: the improvisations of Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and others who have taken a classical style of playing and have introduced it to the jazz audience. The idiom would be the avant garde intonations which recall the works of Henry Cowell and other contemporary composers in the compositions of Cecil Taylor. This is true in ECM jazz recordings where jazz musicians use the classical idiom of strings and classical instruments in a jazz composition:  Eberhard Weber, Ralph Towner, and Paul McCandless have used the classical idiom in jazz. To consider the idiom in painting the art critic might perceive the influence of jazz improvisation on painting which could appear to be spontaneous free flowing brush strokes in the style of Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism, with similar urban themes expressed in the music: free improvisation on themes, fast intuitive playing, traffic frustation, and after five moods of relaxation. Jacques Derrida begins The Truth in Painting with an anecdote that creates a fictive approach to the study of Esthetics, and this philosophical essay has been constructed as a form of intellectual improvisation on the theme of the idiom in painting.

The concept of The Truth in Painting is inspired by a letter from Paul Cezanne to Emile Bernard written on October 23, 1905.

l owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.
                                                         from a Letter 
                                                         to Émile Bernard
                                                        Paul Cezanne

Philosophy is a way of discussing the truth.

The paintings of Paul Cezanne are a good place to begin a discussion of modern esthetics, and Jacques Derrida begins his essay with a promise to tell the truth which for the reader is the beginning of a relationship with someone who is knowing: a philosopher, an art critic, a university professor is usually someone who knows the truth, and can speak with authority.

I owe you the truth on painting and I will tell it to you, and as painting ought to be the truth, l owe you the truth about the truth and I will tell it to you.
                                                         The Truth in Painting
                                                         Jacques Derrida

Here Jacques Derrida introduces some key concepts which reveal an archeological development of the truth from the idea of a supplement to a text which produces a parergon: an additional text which has evolved from a larger work. He refers to the the printer's marks at the begnning of the essay as an edge.

This partition of the edge is perhaps what is inscribed and occurs everywhere in this book; and the protocol-frame is endlessly multiplied in it, from lemmata to parerga, from exergues to cartouches.
                                                         The Truth in Painting
                                                         Jacques Derrida

From this spontaneous beginning The Truth in Painting introduces several words which become the main themes of the esthetic meditation on painting.

A piece of work that is supplementary to a larger work.

lemmas or lemmata
1. a subsidiary or intermediate theorem in an argument or proof.

A small space or inscription below the principal emblem on a coin or medal.

A carved tablet or drawing representing a scroll with rolled-up ends, used ornamentally or bearing an inscription. In archaeology an oval enclosing a group of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Truth in Painting introduces the reader to philosophers who have discussed esthetics so that the ideas of Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger will become familiar in the detailed discussion of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. Jacques Derrida is outstanding among the philosophers with a more specific approach to painting and with the use of anecdotes that create an ongoing personal mythology: an interest in art and eroticism that is the subject of the essay.

The Truth in Painting includes a chapter called Cartouches which becomes an appreciation for the culture of the Tlingit tribe with the pocket sized coffins that go back to the time of King Tut, and becomes an archeological meditation on the theme of death.  

Finally in the chapter Restitutions of the truth in pointing [poin ture] Jacques Derrida considers the theme of the peasant shoe in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh which becomes the focus for an enlightened discussion on an ancedote that is erotic, and represents a successful life experience that makes life worth living. A treasure to be remembered forever.

This 'naked' (Das 'bloss ') does however mean the stripping (Entblossung, the denuding which strips of -) away of the character of usefulness (Dienlichkeit) and of being made- If I understand rightly: not the denuding of the foot, for example, but the denuding of the shoes that have become naked things again, without usefulness, stripped of their use-value.
                                                         The Truth in Painting
                                                         Jacques Derrida

The Truth in Painting by Jacques Derrida is an effort to understand the truth of spiritual evolution with an anecdotal plot that spans the centuries, so that the readers of Innovative Fiction will find that esthetic discussions which create a more abstract trend for narrative writing in which concrete details are the result of a Phenomenological reduction: a narrative reduced to subtle anecdotes or details in which philosophical thought occurs as an abstraction of the narrative perspective. This abstraction is similar to a painting in which love guides the thoughts of the artist/philosopher.

Philosophy is the beautiful mind expressing love which guides the thoughts of the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

I would also like to recommend an interview with Ornette Coleman by Jacques Derrida:

The Other's Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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