- Agora - filosofiska essäer
The art of the name. A philosophical homage to Cy Twombly 1928-2011
An artwork by Cy Twombly that perhaps emphasizes the proper discord underlying the name of a philosopher.
This is Plato (1974), a collage composed of an oval lying on a rectangular sheet. Within the oval there are two rectangles.
On the upper one, you find a ‘window’ depicting a sky furrowed by clouds; on the lower, another rectangle with two L-shaped figures inside it, one ‘L’ facing the other, and an arrow with a caption concerning measurement (100 M.).
This lower rectangle contains another rectangle, which extends the rectangular base with another rectangle shape that expands into the blank space between the two rectangles’ common base and the oval. Here, the artist wrote with an uncertain hand, as if using a pen that does not work and requires clumsy, heavy strokes in order to make a legible mark, the name Plato. (In another work, from 1963, also titled Plato, Twombly traces some signs over the name of Plato as though he wanted to erase it, making evident its status as an ordinary note, written down in a hurry).
The whole composition appears strangely misaligned and, so to speak, intentionally discordant. Traced, repeated, inaccurate pencil marks; crayon touches like uncertain stains; figures and letters written, it seems, in a hurry; the unreadable scribble.
Except for the sky with clouds and the artist’s initials with the date of composition of the artwork, its appearance seems imprecise and, although not rough, very sketchy and vague. Yet there is the name Plato with all, or most, of the conceptual weight this carries: geometry (lines, figures, right angles…), therefore perfection of shape; measurement that is the Socratic prosody of the early dialogues; and maybe an implication, despite vagueness, of the rational cosmology of Timaeus.
Furthermore, the sky with the snow-white clouds is a visible hint of Hyperuranium, the place/non-place of ideas. However, you might also claim such blatant – and at first sight trivial – use of scotch tape to bind various pieces of the collage as platonic: in fact, one reads in Parmenides of the existence of ideas about those things “which you might Cy Twomblythink rather ridiculous, such as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else particularly vile and worthless?” (Parm. 130c-d)1Twombly doesn’t only call this work Plato, though. This would reduce everything to a reference, albeit unusual or even ironic, to the philosopher’s conceptual universe.
He actually writes this name, ‘Plato’, on it (as he often did in his artworks: Apollo and the Artist, Adonais, Orpheus…) in an uncertain scrawl, which highlights it as a meaningful element of the artwork. So, why write (in the artwork, as the artwork) the name of Plato? Here, doesn’t the name of the philosopher work as a sign or a caption or inscription? I would assert, to let it run – not under the guardianship of an intangible set of concepts, but as something shadowy, thin, winged, which accompanies the concepts. Looked at this way, it applies this philosophy with less austerity, creating a sort of ‘lag’ between a respect for reality and ideal construction. With the peculiar handwriting idiosyncrasy (a handwriting not so different from a voice), platonic ideas thus schematized are shown just a little bit different from the evocation of a world of pure thought – therefore marked by an unbridgeable gap. The name of the philosopher, written or spoken, shows that there is no thought without this gap.
Alfonso Cariolato, Italian philosopher, received his Ph.D. from the Universities of Strasbourg and Padua under the guidance of Jean-Luc Nancy and Franco Volpi. He has published many essays, as well as four books: Il luogo del finito (2003); I sensi del pensiero (2004); L’Existence nue. Essai sur Kant (2009, with an Introduction by J.-L. Nancy); Dare una voce. La filosofia e il brusio del mondo (2009) and “Le geste de dieu”. Sur un lieu de l’Éthique de Spinoza, Marginalia de Jean-Luc Nancy (2011).
The piece is an excerpt from Dare una voce (To give a voice, philosophy and the hum of the world), translated into English by Italian essayist, film and literary critic, Gianluca Pulsoni.
Special thanks for the help to Irish film critic and director, Max Le Cain (www.experimentalconversations.com).
1 Plato, Cratylus. Parmenides. Greater Hippias. Lesser Hippias, translated into English by Harold N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts 1926.