31. Two Readings of Art


“An ethics of things, where ethics cannot be traditional ethics in any of its formulations (utilitarian, deontological, virtue-orientated), and things cannot be traditional things (objects as opposed to a subject). At the intersection between ethics and things, Levinas and Heidegger meet.”1
Silvia Benso

Throughout his life Levinas was intrigued by art and sought to understand whether it was ‘useful’ to his philosophy. Interestingly, his view on this altered around the time that he encountered such abstract art as Picasso’s cubist works.

So, our progress in this area will be guided by the notion that there are two distinct readings of Levinas regarding art. Within the first, Levinas detailed art as evasive and irresponsible, and then in the second it becomes complicated and lively, with the potential of informing his project as a whole.

The first reading begins with Levinas’ most renowned work on art, Reality and its Shadow, in which his early aesthetic theories took shape. As a starting point, he stated, “art, essentially disengaged, constitutes, in a world of initiative and responsibility, a dimension of evasion.”2 Art occupies the role of distraction from the task in hand, which for Levinas was responsibility to the other, and this is obviously makes art useless as far as Levinas was concerned:

700 Rubbish bin of art.fw

“Art… especially brings the irresponsibility that charms as a lightness and grace. It frees. To make or to appreciate a novel and a picture is to no longer have to conceive, is to renounce the effort of science, philosophy, and action. Do not speak, do not reflect, admire in silence and in peace – such are the counsels of wisdom satisfied before the beautiful”3

However, more than that:

“There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.”4

Appreciating art, then as far as the early Levinas was concerned, leads to the equivalent of an irresponsible attitude, in which one’s relation to the real world has become suspended, forgotten, and overlooked in a fit of self-gratification.

Ultimately Levinas, in the first reading, attributed the term ‘shadow’ to art and decided that it neither reveals nor creates. For him, the ontological world of knowledge revealed, and the ethical world of the Other created. Art merely provided the distraction of shadows and, therefore, had no reality. Art, therefore, under the early Levinas, is reduced to the realm of shadows, an underworld that has no bearing upon the real world. It may tantalise and distract, but we are always left right back where we started. Art is ontologically and ethically insignificant.

Art in the underworld.fw

Having seen what early Levinas thought of art, it is surely pertinent to ask why he saw it as he did. Interestingly, because it impacts upon the second reading, the answer is in the completeness of the work. The article that the artist presents to the world is complete, it is finished, without the requirement for anything external to be added, it is its own totality. In Reality and its Shadow Levinas wrote:

“The artist stops because the work refuses to accept anything more, appears saturated. The work is completed in spite of the social or material causes that interrupt it. It does not give itself out as the beginning of a dialogue.”5

F. Mai Owens introduces a parallel to this early Levinasian completeness of art because, for her, such completeness echoes “the self-contained unity of the Solitary subject,”6 which we have encountered before (see post number 25). Just as the “Solitary subject,” that Owens spoke of, is sealed in their own world so too is the art-work and neither can influence the other or hope to interact in any ethical way. They are just two blind brute entities occupying the lowest level of their possible existence.

2 Brute entities.fw

Attempting to try and out-manoeuvre Levinas’ thoughts on the ‘completeness’ of art, Owens cunningly employs Anish Kapoor. In Kapoor’s oeuvre she finds “works which do not assert themselves as completions,”7 which gives hope to any quest that wants to lead art out of the shadow-world into which Levinas placed it.

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate.fw
Cloud Gate, Chicago by Anish Kapoor

However, just such a manoeuvre can be found closer to home and lies within Levinas’ own thoughts on art; we just have to initiate the second reading of art in his writings.

The second reading again compares art to what is in the ‘real’ world. This time though art is not a shadow in contrast to reality, instead it becomes that which cannot be totalised by a subject. A volte face, n’est pas?

In the second reading, reality is not that which we evade by appreciating art, it is instead that which the subject subsumes within itself and hence has mastery over. Art is no longer a mere meaningless distraction it is now something that has alterity, and as a consequence meaning. In order for us to follow this second reading Peter Schmiedgen reminds us how we, as solitary Levinasian beings, approach the world around us:

“In general we only thematize the ‘useful’, or ‘relevant’, aspects of things at hand. The ways in which they transcend our immediate interests are put out of mind and perhaps even asserted to be inessential properties. We distinguish between primary (real) and secondary (apparent) qualities… the inclusion of objects, or indeed even experiences in the visual ‘world’, or perhaps more to the point, ‘my world’ (whether it be of practice or theory, use or representation) is also always an exclusion of other aspects of the objects in question.”8

Primary ways of seeing.fw

The passing over of such ‘secondary’ qualities when regarding objects alters significantly when we approach certain art objects according to Schmiedgen’s reading of Levinas:

“Abstract artistic representation, by contrast, extracts things from the unity of an interested subjectivity and makes us see objects (insofar as they can still be named ‘objects’ at all) in all their independence from our projects and intentions. It forces us to confront the apparently useless, obstructive and a-typical, not as a negative excess to be excluded, but as a significant part of experience.”9

Art, therefore, gives presence to generally ignored ‘secondary’ qualities, encouraging us to confront that which we take for granted, overlook, or disregard. The important distinction being made here between the two readings that Levinas instigated is the difference between traditional representational art and its bastard child, abstract, modern, or avant-garde art.

Factory, Horta de Ebbo', Pablo Picasso, 1909.fw
Factory, Horta de Ebbo’, by Pablo Picasso, 1909

That abstract art doesn’t bring ‘forth a world’ means that it doesn’t totalise itself or allow the subject to totalise it in turn. Rather than a closed and sealed off world, either in the work or subject, an opening appears when one views a piece of abstract art, an opening that is not reducible to a world, i.e., not reducible to ontology. The abstract image allows the opportunity for us to step outside of the ontological constraints imposed by the work, or ourselves, and discover new non-epistemologically founded meanings. A coherent, rational, visual universal order has been disrupted to leave fragments, or shards, of material which populate the canvas rejecting comprehension, inviting only unworldly experience. Levinas continued:

“From a space without horizon, things break away and are cast toward us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes, planes, triangles, without transitions between them. They are naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abcesses of being. In this falling of things down on us, objects attest their power as material objects, even reach a paroxysm of materiality.”10

Pablo Picasso 1910 Girl with a Mandolin
Girl with a Mandolin by Pablo Picasso, 1910

With the onset of abstract art, representation disappears leaving pure material which thrusts itself upon the spectator with a brute presence that no longer has clothes to dignify, or define an image, symbol, or sign. The pure nakedness of paint impacts viscerally rather than rationally, leaving an inarticulate experience, but nevertheless an imprinted experience within the subject who gazes upon it, and hence “the work is no longer visible in the way the world is.”11

Our old friend, Gerald Bruns, believes that such an experience therefore “constitutes a kind of transcendence” which is “continuous with the experience of the il y a”, which Levinas described in Existence and Existents as “a world emptied of objects.”12 The importance being, of course, that a connection exists for Levinas between abstract art and the il y a: both have an indeterminable, yet irrefutable, presence, both present us with alterity – otherness.

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No.1 (PH-235), 1944
1944-N No.1 (PH-235) by Clyfford Still, 1944

Indeed, just as the Other arises from the depths of the il y a as an ‘expectation of an expectation’, as noted by Derrida for Levinas, then so too does abstract art relate to the il y a; only rather than coming from it, the nakedness of art, in its materiality, gestures toward the il y a. Schmiedgen untangles:

“Although the social other cannot appear at the level of the visual for Levinas, otherness as un-synthesizability and a-typicality can and it is just this that we experience via artistic representation, or at least some (specifically abstractionist) forms of artistic representation, in any case.”13

The gesture that abstract art makes is towards the il y a and by relation otherness, and this can be seen visually because of the “un-synthesizability and a-typicality” of the work: Otherness is before us visually but it remains other because our attempts to co-opt the visual into ourselves are frustrated. Consequently, abstract art, because of its “un-synthesizability” and “a-typicality” can allow for otherness to be present before us. So, if we have otherness, then do we also have responsibility, ethics, or ‘face?’ In his 1961 tome, Totality and Infinity, Levinas answered this question categorically in the negative, “things have no face.”14

Faceless things.fw

As a quick reminder of the ‘otherness’ of a face, in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Adriaan Peperzak summarised his understanding of what a ‘face’ was for Levinas: “The Other who looks at me is not a phenomenon; a face is invisible, because it cannot be identified as a theme.”15 With this positioning of the ‘face’ that “cannot be identified as a theme” we can start to see a parallel emerging with Schmiedgen’s description of abstract art having “un-synthesizability and a-typicality”: neither ‘face’ nor abstract art can be thematized, synthesized, or contained by us because they have the quality of otherness. Interestingly, Levinas alluded to this parallel in his 1951 work Is Ontology Fundamental, which actually introduced the idea of the ‘face.’ At that time, Levinas was developing his thoughts about this new notion of the ‘face’ and allowed himself to ask:

“Can things take on a face? Isn’t art an activity that gives things a face? Isn’t the façade of a house a house that is looking at us? The analysis conducted thus far is not enough to give the answer.”16

Rather disappointingly, ten years later, he stated that analysis of the matter has provided the answer: “things have no face.” Consequently, leaves us with a problem, then in drawing our parallel: ultimately Levinas wouldn’t have liked it.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962.fw
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962

Don’t worry, though, Silvia Benso takes on this problem and gives Levinas a nudge to see if she can make him like it.

In The Face of Things Benso calls into question Levinas’ anthropocentric vision of ethics by arguing for the inclusion of things into the realm of the ‘face.’

“The face of the Other is always the human face. Ethically, that is all that matters. This determination implies that the entire realm of nature, animate and inanimate, is deprived of any notion of otherness… Levinas’s answer is resolute. If animals have a face, it is not an ethical face, but a biological one.”17

Rather eloquently, with the argument of including things in the realm of the ‘face’, Benso seeks to bring together the ideas of both Levinas and Heidegger. And with wonderfully simple sub-titles she represents Levinas as ‘Love Without Things’ and Heidegger as ‘Things Without Love’, which she then unites to achieve a love of things.

Love fist.fw

A slightly more complex description of this unification is given in her preface:

“Heidegger offers a thematization of things in terms that are amenable to the recognition of their own alterity. Therefore, Heidegger’s thought proves itself capable of resetting in movement Levinas’s philosophy at the point where it had arrested itself: on the threshold of the alterity of things.”18

Thus, Benso saw Heidegger’s work on things as comparable with Levinas’ work on ethics because both attempted to articulate an alterity that they found in the world. Remarkably, even while surfing the terrain of alterity as free agents, they each kept a respectful distance from the other’s domain, as if a mutually agreed contract had been drawn up between the two.

Two islands.fw

Their approaches to their predecessors are also comparable; just as Levinas had rejected traditional philosophy so too had Heidegger rejected traditional ideas in ontology, and yet, as Benso makes evident, despite such similarities each remained faithful to their ‘contract’:

“In a move that turns around the entire tradition in its relation to things, Heidegger grounds the fact of being a human being on the ability to listen, and correspond, to the inner appeal of things. The possibility for an ethics of things is opened up, although never explicitly thematized by Heidegger, who arrests himself on the threshold of ethics.”19

So, in a move that defies each of their wishes, Benso pushes both over the other’s threshold to present a synthesis of their ideas. This “path of affirmation,”20 as Benso describes, leads to

“An ethics of things, where ethics cannot be traditional ethics in any of its formulations (utilitarian, deontological, virtue-orientated), and things cannot be traditional things (objects as opposed to a subject). At the intersection between ethics and things, Levinas and Heidegger meet.”21

Two Victiran chaps meeting

One has to admire Benso for her clarity and work at this point. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves and we need to know a little more of Heidegger’s thoughts?

Heidegger’s later work on things achieved its worth, for Benso, around the broad encapsulation ‘letting being be’, with its necessary attendant anthropocentric task of allowing ourselves to be open in order to facilitate that very ‘letting be’ of beings:

“Thinking is to keep open – that is, to question. To question is ‘the resolve to be able to stand in the openness of the essent’, that is to let be. And letting be already implies a relation to things which does not cover them up with utilitarian rationalizations. To do so, though, a change of comportment (an existential ‘effect’) is required in the one who does the thinking… the question of things invokes a task, and not simply an answer. The task, accomplishing through the ever-new posing of the questioning, is that of keeping open a space able ‘to preserve things in their inexhaustibility, i.e., without distortion’.”22

And it is at this juncture that Benso finds Heidegger’s desire “to preserve” things “without distortion” equates to Levinas’ desire not to totalise everything in a gaze for easy incorporation into our understanding. Hence, for Benso the opening up of a “possibility for an ethics of things” becomes viable. By keeping ‘open’ and ‘letting be’ an identical situation as at the start of a second reading of Levinas comes into effect.

Open sign.fw

The difference, however, between the second reading of Levinas on art and Heidegger’s ‘letting being be’ is in what manifests the outcome. In Levinas, the artwork, because of its abstract nature, appears to manifest its own freedom, whereas in ‘letting being be’ that which does the ‘letting’ is us, the “one who does the thinking.” The importance for us in identifying the cause of this change lies in Levinas’ insistence that ethics is predicated upon the other: It is not my freedom that leads to responsibility; it is my responsibility for the other that leads to my freedom.

Almost as if to address this Levinasian requirement for ethics, Benso examines Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism and quotes him asserting that “thinking… lets itself be claimed by being,”23 after which she writes: “In other words, the thinker is not at the origin of thinking. Questioning comes from beyond the questioner, from that about which is being questioned.”24 By a change of comportment the priority of the subject in “keeping open a space to ‘preserve things in their inexhaustibility’” is replaced by the priority of being, of that “about which is being questioned.”


So, the instigation of listening comes from the thing, just as in our second reading of Levinas it comes from the work of art. This, Benso is quick to state, gives license to a reading of Heidegger where “the possibility of an ethics – is, if not thematized, at least suggested,” if there is “the possibility that things may send out an appeal, to which human beings are obliged to correspond.”25 But, as Benso adds in caution, “so that the appeal may be heard, a questioning of the mode of being of things is required which lets them be as things.”26 So, although the priority has shifted onto things, rather than the subject, to instigate a potential ethical encounter, the subject is still required to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing. An ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision, because that vision will obliterate any ethical possibility.

The link between how we regard art – possibly just of an abstract nature for the time being – and how the Levinasian ‘face’ acts upon us is one that, with Levinas’ second reading of art and Benso’s finely argued for Heideggerian inclusion, really seems possible. The importance being, of course, that this means genuine lessons can be learned from how we look at art when thinking ethically about our regard for other people. To gaze upon Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock and allow it to speak, unfettered by our pre-determined thoughts, is to look into the eyes of the stranger we bump into in the street: both demand an ethical response that allows them to be.

Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948.fw
Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1948

Speaking of Pollock…


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 128.
  2. Levinas, E. ‘Reality and its Shadow’ included in The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Edited by Clive Cazeaux, Routledge, London, 2000, 126.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 118.
  6. Owens, F. M. Encountering the Other: Levinas, Kapoor, Time and the Other, Masters thesis, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, 1998, 16.
  7. Ibid., 41.
  8. Schmiedgen, P. ‘Art and Idolatry: Aesthetics in Levinas’ included in Contretemps 3, July 2002, vol. 3, 150.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Levinas, E. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2001, 51.
  11. Bruns, G. ‘The concept of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 212.
  12. Ibid., and 213.
  13. Schmiedgen, P. ‘Art and Idolatry: Aesthetics in Levinas’ included in Contretemps 3, July 2002, vol. 3, 150.
  14. Levinas, E. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 140.
  15. Peperzak, A., Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, 66.
  16. Levinas, E. ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’ included in Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. Translated by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshaw, Columbia University Press, 1998, 10.
  17. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 42.
  18. Ibid., xxxv.
  19. Ibid., xxxvi.
  20. Ibid., 128.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 65.
  23. Ibid., 66.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

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