an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 12, May - December 2015, ISSN 1552-5112
Messianicity, or Radical Illustration in the Face of God:
Romeo Castellucci and Antonello da Messina
Let me begin with a couple of remarks on my title, which is both rash and in its rashness telling; it deliberately runs the risk and trouble of being mistaken. Thus, two words seem in place on what I do not intend to do.
Firstly, reasons have accumulated to underscore Derrida’s atheism – and ‘radical atheism’, of course, instead of, say, ‘radical patience’. The correction of a misuse or misunderstanding is one thing – a thing of interest – and the closer analysis, critique or continuation of an argument – Derrida’s philosophy – is another. Thus, a secondary argument is to be made and directed against the mistaken interest in Derrida as a last, if ever so distanced, prophet or as the opposite, yet another most radical anti-theological atheist. Both seem beside the point, and I mention this from the start, in order to get it out of the way of my primary concern, art instead of theology. There is, however, one obstacle: Derrida’s relatively prominent use of the m-word, ‘messianicity’ - compared to his rather limited uses of, and references to art.
As far as art is concerned, there is more than one way to deal with its relevance for Derrida (besides literature). Here, I take my departure from the commonest of places, The Truth in Painting which, as a title, offers a façon de parler in the place of a more descriptive or referential heading; the translators of the book are right to highlight the idiomatic aspect – of the “truth in painting” idiom – since it does reflect, in a characteristic manner, the metaphorological plane, on which the use of the word “truth” is situated and applies to painting in a specific way. The most banal among definitions of truth, the so-called correspondence theories of truth, seem particularly happy with the apparent talent of painting to illustrate reference. To this old, but telling mistake, I turn in a minute, since Derrida, in his evaluation of the art historian Meyer Schapiro’s refutation of Martin Heidegger’s illustration of truth in a painting by van Gogh, uses it as more than a convenient pretext.
Talking of the Truth in Painting means first of all to face a mess of misunderstandings about the illustrative power of painting. After three parts of framing, which prepare in meticulously executed fashion, the focus of the fourth part on the announced, though often mistaken truth in art, Derrida finally enters art historical terrain. A focus needs framing, which is to say – and is relevant for any practice of theory – one’s focus cannot be content with transcendental framing or infrastructural tracing. Thus, Derrida comes to real pictures, notably to the notorious van Gogh, Shoes, but also to other canonical instances of painting from van Eyck to Magritte. He enters art historical terrain – a rare case, since his Louvre exhibition Memoirs of the Blind remained to a large extent an essay on phenomenological hyper-reflection, including Merleau Ponty’s deep infatuation with Cezanne. As Andrew Benjamin has put it most fittingly, citing from Derrida’s Passe-Partout: in focusing on questions of framing, he kept writing “around painting.” Derrida was not into pictures, is all I can say. In this case, he could or would not avoid them.
Derrida’s first step, safeguarding the distance of the philosopher, is interesting and in a way groundbreaking for the application of his ‘method’ – the parergon, the supplement. What appears at first glance as a tedious, rather tiresome and outdated controversy between the art historian Meyer Schapiro and the philosopher Heidegger on some over-used shoes (hanging about everywhere in posters and postcards) – a controversy, in which the philosopher connects a couple of fundamental remarks on the origin of art with the deliberately dilettantish treatment of an example, the said shoes by or of van Gogh – turns in Derrida’s treatment, into a veritable conversion scene of an aesthetics of reception. That is to say, the truth in painting fought over by the angry art historian and the arrogant philosopher of Being, triggered by the historian’s resentment against the philosopher’s incompetence, does not surface in their argument, but has an unintended come out of the professionals’ closet, in the recall of another philosopher’s reflection: in a transaction, brought about in the patient working through, but also, important to note, in a certain belatedness of that reconsideration. Derrida’s diagnosis leaves no doubt that the time, which has passed between the antagonists and is put to use in his analysis, is part of a latency period called ‘post-war.’ There is, in other words, a time for the truth in painting, a time for its however belated ‘coming true,’ as in Hegel’s statement on philosophy being its own time, put into thought.
What, then, is or, rather, was the timely acuteness of this painting’s truth brought out by Derrida in Schapiro’s encounter with Heidegger, and how does it survive its actuality in a philosophy as time-conscious as Derrida’s? The answer less than the fact, that an answer is not reached or, more interestingly, that it leaves us (still) at a loss, is a rather precarious outcome. The truth in question, illustrated by Heidegger against the protest of Schapiro and in retrospect carefully elaborated by Derrida, repeats in its troubled reception, the troubled state of its illustration.
The term “illustration” itself is significant (“Veranschaulichung” in Heidegger), although it is dismissed by all three discussants – downgraded by Heidegger himself, out-ruled by Schapiro as “projection,” and suspended by Derrida altogether. Heidegger at least seems aware of the strong sense, in which the “Veranschaulichung” he is seeking, brings out and produces, and not merely imitates, that which is said to picture the truth in question. Schapiro cannot help but deny the alleged illustrative role of the picture, while Derrida puts him straight by referring him back to Heidegger’s interest, which was dismissed by Schapiro as mere “projection.” Derrida finds in the picture an analytical difference made available, which is on the very grounds of this analysis – phenomenological reduction – otherwise invisible and unremarkable. (Here, Memoirs of the Blind shall go into detail.) The crux denied by Schapiro, although it is at the same time marked by his evasiveness, is the basic everyday quality of the van Gogh shoes as “Zeug” – a term difficult to translate, and certainly not as “equipment” or “product” – which is an invisible ingredient of the shoes’ usefulness and amounts to nothing less than their primordial embeddedness in life. Invisible in both, its genuine use and its irreducible roots in life, connecting the life-world with the primary footing on the earth underneath its soles, the Zeug-character of the “Schuhzeug” pictured by van Gogh is said to be uniquely brought out and made visible in his picture by virtue of its very art – the Renaissance name for this fundamental exemplarity would have been illustratio (that the art historian Schapiro should have known, but kept to himself).
The “Zeug,” Heidegger does not fail to
elaborate (as he did more thoroughly in Being
and Time, § 15), is a state in between the thing and the work, in that it
completes, even founds, in the deeply-seated finality of its being in use, the
underlying thingness; but thus, Derrida takes pain to bring out, the illustratio of this everyday
life-founding and supporting in-visibly working device called “Zeug” – which
becomes doubly paradoxical. Made visible in the work of art and illustrated in
the shoes by, or even of, Van Gogh (the man and/or the artist), the essential
invisibility of its “being embedded” in life and its place value in the world –
since that is, what it essentially is, the “Zeug” – is lost twice, given up to
a superficial visibility and broken off from genuine life. Heidegger, one has
to admit, in what seems like a rhetorical dismissal, even took note of the
materiality of Van Gogh’s painting and seems for a moment to include it as a symptom
of the closeness to the earth, which characterizes this very “Zeug’s” being in
use. But the severed state of temporality that is the visual distinction of the
standstill of time in the picture, is said to nevertheless expose what does
not, precisely, work within the work, as it supposedly does work, truly works
(since that is its truth), in life.
A Pair of Shoes (1885), by
Vincent van Gogh
In exposing this inherent impossibility of the work of art, which is caused by its art, Derrida goes on to expose for his part the almost congenial or, as he puts it with smooth discretion, the “corresponding” jump to a conclusion, which both the philosopher and the art historian, each in their own way, commit: which they feel called to commit (Schapiro) or feel committed to conclude (Heidegger). That jump’s name is – Derrida spells it out with disgust – parousia. 
No wonder, given the philosopher’s as well as the art historian’s profession. Derrida, on his part, is too much bothered to remain cool – a rare case for him, the coolest ever – not to jump to a conclusion of his own as yet, but is induced to an overstatement of the two others’ jumping to their conclusions, which amounts to a notable, mutually reinforced déformation professionelle. Closer to the point of the painting and, that is, closer to the de-formed truth in painting, it is the two professions’ inbuilt “Christic” format – Derrida does not risk to call it Christological (which it is), but that is to come out in a moment anyhow. He cites, out of the blue, his friend Louis Marin’s – a philosopher obsessed with the truth in painting – favorite document, a true fossil: Hoc est corpus meum. Transubstantiation is what seems to happen according to Heidegger and Schapiro alike in the painting of the shoes’ illustration, the “Zeug’s” visual exposition in the temporal standstill of life in art. No ridicule will help Derrida on the following pages (of a portrait of the artist as an old shoe); he tries hard to overcome his embarrassment with a bad joke – an apotropaic gesture in the face of the van Gogh shoes staring back at the philosopher, from the secure distance of their being painted (and framed, not to forget). There remains, however, yet a further “and yet” to be considered, missed by Derrida in the heat of the parousia suspected and promptly declined – of a parousia, not to forget, postponed from the start and in permanent suspense over the ages – the messianicity syndrome, which he invokes and seeks to avoid on all accounts here.
And there is indeed more than meets the
innocent eye here, an art historical circumstance (also one of literary
history), hard to overlook and cited at great length by Derrida himself in a
quotation from Schapiro that triggers the parousia shock. In a truly essential
anecdote of Gauguin, which is – unwittingly? cunningly? – offered by Schapiro
as the final proof of his own art-historical truth, Gauguin speaks of van
Gogh’s shoes (I quote Gauguin’s quote, as Derrida refashions it after Schapiro)
as a “vision of the resurrected Christ.” The context of Gauguin’s sentence is
problematic in its appeal of a Saint’s legend, which is bent by Schapiro to his
own end; Gauguin is everything but a naïve witness, and Derrida certainly
senses as much. Gauguin performs a more or less implicit, but obvious joke (an
artist’s joke on a fellow artist), which is in tune with the unholy,
travesty-bent spirit of the times – think of Manet’s Dead Christ in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, or of Flaubert’s Trois Contes.
The Dead Christ with Angels (1864), By Edouard Manet
Plainly playing on the kenotic tradition of the time, there is indeed a Christological reference in van Gogh’s shoes, hard to miss and open to punning and joking, since in a “vision of the resurrected Christ” the shoes are what is left behind in the ascension. (Sandals left on the ground are a standard motif in any apotheosis.) In the less jokey mood of a not yet post-christological milieu like the Baroque, the footprints of Christ ascending to heaven provided even a self-referential motif for painting itself, and “Jesus preaching goodness and humility” cited in this vein by Schapiro (transposed, and not at all disregarded by Heidegger) names the kenotic – and, that is, non-baroque – essence of van Gogh’s shoe paintings. The whole point in dealing with the life-quality of the old “Schuhzeug” is kenosis, not parousia. Gauguin is a reliable witness – not of the resurrection, where this type of a witness was invented, indeed, but of van Gogh’s milieu. From here, “the ghost van Gogh renders himself to his name,” Derrida concludes or, is it not, rather, that this ghost withdraws and leaves behind his shoes just as the resurrected one left his behind? (as trace? as his trace?)
Does the kenosis-motif, current at the time and even defining a certain strain of modernity, solve the Zeug-question posed by Heidegger (who must have been aware of it)? Restituted by Derrida against the grain of the plausibilities attracted by Schapiro, it sharpens the thrust of the illustration, but it does not explain its work and art within the work of art. In defacing its art (doubling the oldest ratio of art: to conceal its art – Ovid’s ars adeo, arte sua – in order to take its place in life), the kenotic interpretation of the Christological remnant, which is literally one and, as such, as a remnant, is an allegory of the disappearance of God – and leads to a re-evaluation of what is to happen on the other side of the Zeug-part and its silent involvement in life: in the work-part of art. It leads – and does so implicitly already in Heidegger’s use or misuse of the motif, even if we leave aside thematic aspects like the abuse of the old shoes – from the late-romantic ‘pre-ekstasy’ proposed by Kenneth Burke in his discussion of Keats’s fossilized Urn to the post-temporality of an immanence, which still has to learn how to live on with the “Zeug” left by the eschatological (or messianic) tradition. Thus, approaching the end of my own discussion here, let me revoke the carelessly proposed title: Art is not messianicity (as Derrida is no atheist; he does no longer need to be one). Radical illustration is not of, but in the face of God. Let me illustrate.
Romeo Castellucci’s most recent
scandalous piece, Sul concetto di volto nel Figlio di Dio (On the Concept of
the Face of God) exposes, one is quickly led to think, messianicity and its
function in art.
On the Concept of the Face of God, Regarding the Son of God (2011), By Romeo Castellucci
For an educated Derridean like Castellucci (a reader of Derrida on Artaud, no doubt), the design of the play is simple. It practices a radical exposure of Renaissance illustratio; one is even tempted to say, it offers nothing but this illustratio. I restrict my report to this aspect, which is easy to relate, since it meets the eye from the first moment onwards and remains dominant to the end, but goes almost unnoticed in the scandalized reactions and responses to the play, although the plot would not exist, if it were not for the huge background picture of a Christ, Figlio di Dio. Whatever else happens in the play – not much – happens in front of this picture, until it is dismantled in the end and enters thereby the plot, which it had witnessed before, unmoved. The identity of the picture is rarely ever mentioned and never discussed, since its referent Christ is taken for granted, both in his being there, on the wall, and in his function of overseeing the scene. With – (or, is it, rather, against Derrida’s Artaud, that is the question?), the “theatrical practice of cruelty in its action and structure” recalls a “theological space” quite against the grain of Artaud’s project of a “non-theological space,” which the cruelty is to inhabit (according to Artaud) and which it keeps inhabiting here, on Castellucci’s stage, before the face of Christ, until this face is destroyed, illustrated until it collapses as ruinably ruinous (as in Heidegger’s figure of ‘ruinance’) and politics take over. Thus, Artaud’s project seems invoked and dismissed at the same time. Derrida’s presentation of Artaud’s argument self-deconstructs on the spot.
To call this performance theological,
however, would be as misleading as to call it messianic; it is neither. The
Christ illustrated, in spite of looking like a standard piece of the Byzantine
tradition, is Antonello da Messina’s Salvator
mundi (1465) located at the National Gallery,
Salvator mundi (1465), By Antonello da Messina
If one were to replace it by any other
Christ, it is unlikely to achieve the same or a similar effect; no other
picture would do – thus the implied message, well contested by the evidence of
its effect on the play’s audiences. Unlike the abominable Christ selling
Coca-Cola with the slogan “this is my blood,” Castellucci does not call up a
This is My Blood (2001), by Alexander Kosolapov
His play is an illustratio exposing the power of art in this and no other picture, and what it shows is how this piece of art – the art of Antonello, to be precise – is, was and keeps being able to re-place God, to take the place of God and, in fact, having taken his place already since quite a while. The moral sense of the plot that unfolds as a play “regarding the face of God” is of interest, since it mirrors in the care of a son for his incontinent old father, the theological constitution of the Son’s face that presides over the Father-Son relationship in the manner of the Holy Ghost and thus enacts the dialectical theory De trinitate of Augustine (the civitas terrena is a standard reference for Castellucci). Leaving the intricacies of the intertwinement of plot and illustratio aside for a moment, one point needs elaboration now, of how Castellucci puts Antonello’s art to work in his illustratio. We might even refrain from showing this picture like old shoes, in order not to raise the false expectation that one could read anything off of its surface, but to focus on the use extracted from it in Castellucci’s play, a cultic use, as we find it recited, for example, in Thomas Struth’s photographic illustration of Bellini’s Madonna of San Zaccaria, Venice. The thrust of both illustrations, the theatrical and the photographic, varies; the one is political, the other historical.
Heidegger’s left-handed illustration left us with a temporal impasse, which enforced the urge of an eschatological conclusion, a forced transcendence as in Benjamin’s Baroque. The parousia lurking in and behind Schapiro’s enlightened positivism, on the other side, offers a phantasmatic after-image symptomatic of some Baroque-like pressure. Derrida’s solution must be different; the temporality contained in the artwork, cutting off and, at the same time, exposing the “Zeug’s” embeddedness in life’s immanence, is a de-limited, but not limitless “omni-temporality,” whose only generalizing, minimal point is the necessity of the future as a “to come” (Hägglund’s starting point). This necessity, let me add for my part, waits in a state of omni-latency, rather, than the urgency that was once prophesied messiah-like. Derrida’s ‘messianicity’ suffers, although decidedly non-messianic, from the drama of a thousand years ‘retrait’ – of a continuing withdrawal from the parousia-hype of late Roman times. Caught in, and all the more true to the post-Christic sentiment, the ici-tizing of the messy messianic compromise – of a historical compromise that did not hold – does not hold any better. Nor did Heidegger’s tentative antidote of an old-German (close to blood and soil) re-mythicization. Schapiro had a clear sense of the abuse, and Derrida discretely agreed with him on this. In any event, art for Derrida is not about an omni-latent mortgage of the past but about the non-negotiable necessity that defines, pre-defines the future “to come.” Moreover, it re-defines the “to come” beyond the interminable mourning of past losses and regardless of a myriad of lost hopes, of futures past that never ever made it into any present.
Antonello’s Salvator mundi, whose face is the grounding force of Castellucci’s mise-en-scène – this is what this scene illustrates – was at all times and before all times beyond such sentimentalities. It does not signify parousia – it never did, since the Savior’s saving was not to end with his appearance, but to endure all along with the suffering that keeps happening in his face un-movingly moved. Castellucci does not only blow up Antonello’s picture, but delimits its frame, an intricate framing apparatus, at that (Antonello is famous for this), including the hand that this Christ – or is it the picture itself? – extends from the depth of the painting towards the world, which is maintained in front of it, according to the hand extended from it in the “pointing” gesture of the painting (the ‘pointure’ in ‘peinture’ according to Derrida). The stage takes the place of the trompe l’oeil that is (and is created by) this hand.
What is left of the painting on the stage is nothing from the legal ecclesiastical claim of the salvatorial clause, but the unadorned face that withdraws from the pictorial space into the flatness of a theater wall, which is the limit of the stage world. Looking back from the limit of this world to the audience, the face remains unmoved by what happens between him and us, re-defining compassion and repulsion alike, while the cruelty of life unfolds under his and our eyes alike. It even offers a consolation to those, who want to escape from the show and from the stench of the stage, that illustrates life’s double-binding forces (of father and son’s re-ligio), escape from the shit that happens and is bound to re-happen all over the place, again and again. Nothing takes place in the play but the repeated cleaning of the old man, the re-petition of the changing of his pampers. Suggestive to the extent that one is indeed tempted to detect tears in the eyes of the face – such is the force of the projection that answers the trompe l’oeil of the hand reversed. Christ does not move, as much as we may find in Antonello’s pointed painting traits convincing enough for him to be moved un-movingly.
Kenosis reverses the Aristotelian projection of the un-moved mover: This image endures in the face of God and even the policies of removing the face will not diminish its effect. Torn into pieces, it exposes nothing but the helpless political phrases underneath of what this Son was and seems forever expected to do; they cannot belittle, can only confirm the art. Receding, vanishing, the art is what remains. In the intersection of gazes organized by Castellucci, this Christ’s “elegant immanence,” as young Deleuze called it (removed later from the list of his publications), is constituted and maintained. Is art messianism? It is not. In this case (our’s after Antonello), we might call it structurally post-Christian. The unhappy father’s shit on the impeccable white of the son’s carpet looks like (Castellucci’s own commentary) a Jackson Pollock – an allegory of the art that remains. The father, incontinent after-image of a God who vanished, takes to art, in fact (he goes into spraying). The future insists “to come,” as if it was the messiah, Derrida insists; but it does so, Castellucci specifies, in that art endures or, as Benjamin had memorably put it: like a catastrophe that takes no turns but goes on. However, as Brecht has explained, “die Katastrophe ist nicht kritisierbar.” The political question remains, and is named as a remains, namely: what to do about the shit, the human condition after or according to the kenosis of Christ – a Christ who came, but did not keep to the messiah format predicted and expected, mixed up and (no turns) kept up with the future as the “to come.”
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 12, May - December 2015, ISSN 1552-5112
My reference here is to Martin Hägglund’s recent attempt at Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of
 Jacques Derrida, Mémoires d’aveugle (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux 1990), 50 ff. [Memoirs of the Blind (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press 1993), 50 ff.]. Derrida quotes extensively from Maurice Merleau Ponty’s “Notes de travail” of his posthumous opus magnum Le vivible et l’invisible, éd. Claude Lefort (Paris: Gallimard 1964), 300 ff. [The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press 1968), 246 ff.]. The notorious Cezanne-reference, “Le doute de Cezanne” opens the collection Sens et Non-Sens (Paris: Nagel 1948), 15-44 [Sense and Non-Sense (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press 1964), 9-25]. See also the last piece, L’OEil et l’Esprit, preface de Claude Lefort (Paris: Gallimard 1964).
 Christopher Norris/ Andrew Benjamin, What is Deconstruction? (London: Academy Press/ New York NY: St. Martin’s Press 1988), 44.
 Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks” (1936), Holzwege (1950), amplified version (1962), Gesamtausgabe, vol 5 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann 1977), 1-74: 18.
 Jacques Derrida, La vérité en peinture (Paris: Flammarion 1978), 400 [The Truth in Painting (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press 1987), 369].
 See as a standard reference for Derrida (more often implied than explicit) Louis Marin, La critique du discours (Paris: Minuit 1975), 290 ff.
 For a related case see Jacques Rancière’s discussion of Gaugin’s „Vision du sermon,“ in Le destin de l’image (Paris: La Fabrique 2003), ch. 3 [The Future of the Image (London: Verso 2007), 83 ff.], whose evaluation I would want to adjust accordingly.
In his standard monograph (which does not include the shoes), Meyer Schapiro, Vincent Van Gogh (New York NY: Abrams
1983), 106, mentions the “kinship” of a Pieta after Delacroix (
 Kenneth Burke’s proto-deconstructive avant-garde piece “Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats” (1943), A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley CA: University of California Press 1946, 1969), 447-463: 454, uses the term “mystic oxymoron.”
Romeo Castelluci/ Societas Raffaello Sanzio, Sul concetto di volto nel Figlio di Dio
(Biennale di Venezia: Fenice 2011); in the rather heavy-handed English
rendering On the Concept of the Face,
Regarding the Son of God (
 In the early Heidegger lecture course, Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles: Einführung in die phänomenologische Forschung (1921/22), ed. Walter Bröcker and Käte Bröcker-Oltmanns, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 61 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann 1985), 121 [Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle (Bloomington IA: Indiana University Press 2001), 98 ff. „ruinance“ = „collapse“].
 Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la difference (Paris: Seuil 1967), 300 [Writing and Difference (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press 1978), 235].
Thomas Struth, Museum Photographs (
 Walter Benjamin Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928), Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1974), 404 ff. [Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso 1977), …ff.].
Gilles Deleuze, “Du
Christ à la bourgeoisie,” Espace 1 (1946), 93-106 (first and
only issue of this post-war periodical edited by Deleuze); see François Dosse, Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari (
 Bertold Brecht, Kleines Organon für das Theater (1953), § 33 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1961), 22.