VII (Maximilian)
November 2015
A book by Sarah McNulty, with a text by Neil Keith Baker.
Edition of 20.

Nothing out of Something

Painting is the zombie medium in the half-dead afterworld of creative production. It is an empty container that craves being but whose reason lies in its own almost not being. It is alienated from itself and in its alienation endlessly reflects back and forth. In this reflective space one can see that which one cannot name.

In his monograph of 1955 Georges Bataille describes Édouard Manet as wringing the last drop of meaning out of the subject of his painting The Execution of Maximilian. In so doing Bataille claims that Manet left within the painting only those values integral to painting itself. He had painted, for the first time, a pure painting. The Execution of Maximilian provided a clear alternative to the problematic nature of an increasingly tired medium that was being challenged by newer modes of image production whilst being conceptually and spiritually undermined by changing societal conditions and shifts in belief systems.

In The Execution of Maximilian the subject remains - we see a man being shot by a firing squad - but it is shorn of all meaning. For Bataille meaning is something equivalent to what Roland Barthes later called the studium; and described as the general interest of the work that requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. Once meaning is wrung out, the viewer is left with an irreparable lack, a negation of eloquence and a negation of that kind of painting which, like language, relates sentiments and relates anecdotes.

Once it was clear that meaning could be expunged from the painting, painters could focus on those values integral to Painting itself. But meaning is insidious and finer than air. Over time meaning seemed to be or perhaps was removed but easily seeped back into the vacuum that Manet had created. In the years between the completion of The Execution of Maximilian (1867) and the publication of Bataille’s book on Manet (two dates that rather conveniently bookend Modernism), the values integral to painting; the patches, colour, movement were explored through the journey into pure, formal abstraction but these plastic elements themselves became the subject and meaning of the work. The Romantics and Expressionists inserted the artist’s psychological state into the space left vacant by the driving out of the studium and the Surrealists placed psychology itself.

Manet’s triumph is that so many of his paintings remain impervious to meaning. As much as he has been analysed, read, criticized, historicized and re-read, his work remains largely irreducible to meaning. Through engaging with painting purely (and this must be distinguished from what has come to be thought of as pure painting) Manet produced something that, whilst reproducing an event or object, retained a specificity that prevented it from being reducible to meaning.

Painting is not like language in the prosaic sense. Painting is not a form of communication but, like poetry, is the site of the breakdown and failure of communication. The poet, like the painter, must wring the meaning from her material in the knowledge that it is only through the failure of language that one can truly understand one’s own irreducible and separate nature. Standing before The Execution of Maximilian it is possible to glimpse something that is not reducible to that which brought it into being. Manet created an empty surplus, something new, something that might be called non-meaning.

Once one comes to this understanding of the creative/poetic act then the question of whether painting continues to have meaning recedes to irrelevance because it is precisely in its non-meaning and its ongoing death that painting finds its role. This role is closer to the sacred than the profane and it seems ironic that Manet - an Haute Bourgeois painter, or at least a painter of the Haute Bourgeois par excellence - points us away from a bourgeois understanding of art’s function through restoring its sanctity. The unbridgeable absence at the centre of Manet’s work engenders an irresolvable tension that prevents us from wrapping meaning around it and thus parceling it up for exchange in the profane sphere. It calls us to resist equivalence and to give dignity to the individuality and irreducibility of every thing.

In light of this imperative, the material make-up of an artwork becomes secondary to the process of scouring the work for meaning, working to subvert it, scrub it away or otherwise erase it without these processes becoming subjects in themselves. Every strain of eloquence must be done away with and hopefully, finally, nothing is created out of something.

It is crucial that work that resists reduction, equivalence and exchange continue to be made. It is through objects that have had meaning cast out and have been made without model that we can continue to understand ourselves as more than conglomerations of exchangeable units or mere units of exchange ourselves.

All italics George Bataille, Manet, The Taste of Our Time, New York: Skira Books, 1955;
excluding Roland Barthes citation, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 2000 (original English publication 1982).

- Neil Keith Baker, 2015