“Nature”: Cézanne’s way to the BwO – Hovey Brock AP15
The Louvre is a good book to consult but it must be only an intermediary. The real and immense study to be undertaken is in the manifold picture of nature. (italics added)
- Paul Cézanne, Letter to Emile Bernard dated May 12,1904
In his course “Interdisciplinary Art,” Steven Henry Madoff outlines his argument on the fundamentals of interdisciplinary art practice with this statement:
…let me start by saying that all interdisciplinary art derives from painting, sculpture, and theater. From the experience of art as a pictorial surface and as a physical, three-dimensional space into which actors enter, interact, and propel the conception of the work.(AP Art History I, Lecture #2,Page. 3)
How does the work of Paul Cézanne fit in with Madoff’s argument? Cézanne is the archetype of the early modernist “painter’s painter” who broke with tradition. His relentless focus on an almost purely process-driven method devoted to realizing his impressions taken from “Nature” are the stuff of legend. His willingness to question everything about painting, in the confrontation with his ever more intense experiences of “Nature,” marks an important step in what Steven Henry Madoff has called the “cultural trajectory toward horizontality” (Art History 1, Lecture 4, p. 3) of interdisciplinary art. “Horizontality” here refers to a notion Deleuze and Guattari develop in Anti-Oedipus, and flesh out further in 1000 Plateaus where they discuss rhizomatic versus arborescent systems. Rhizomatic systems are horizontal, allowing for multiple connections in no hierarchal order between discreet points of view or data sets. Arborescent systems are hierarchical, and emphasize binary choices.
Cézanne’s confrontation with “Nature” had a destructive impact on the core binary ideas of subject (the painter) / object (the model, e.g. landscape or portrait) within the discipline of painting. This destruction, or “erosion” as Madoff would say, created new “horizontal” relationships between painter, canvas and model-what Cézanne’s called “Nature”:
Cézanne wants to erode the separating tissue between image and experience, to weld multiple experiences together in a single image, in a reinvention of the self; to make a picture that’s as alive and changing as nature itself; to dismantle the painter as a body, as a boundaried thing, and fuse it with nature; to dismantle the picture and its hierarchies of planar division and make it a piece of nature, which is to say, to get rid of its single point of view and its stasis, the stolid stasis of the eye/I. (AP Art History I, Lecture #4, p.6)
In this sense, as Madoff argues, Cézanne was the precursor to Duchamp’s ontological speculations and the energies they unleashed.
In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari give an account of what a complete surrender to horizontality on both the personal and the cultural level would look like in the idea of the “BwO.” They define the “BwO”— a phrase taken from Antonin Artaud’s radio play To Be Done with the Judgment of God—as follows:
The body without organs is an egg: it is crisscrossed with axes and thresholds, with latitudes and longitudes and geodesic lines, traversed by gradients marking the transitions and the becomings, the destinations of the subject developing along these particular vectors. (Anti-Oedipus p. 19)
The BwO is a notoriously difficult idea to unpack, but the above definition tells us a few things. For one, the BwO, as an egg, is a featureless entity of pure potential. The vocabulary describing the paths across the BwO suggests both place (latitude/longitude) and movement (vectors). The heart of the concept, the underlined word, is “becomings,” or the transitions from one form of being to another. Deleuze and Guattari’s allegiance is not to transcendental ideas of fixed being that apply in a one-to-many mapping to things in the world, as is the case with Platonic “forms.” Instead, they insist on process (being in transition) and immanence, the density of specificity rooted in the here and now.
Brian Massumi in A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia gives a useful, fractal–based, definition of the BwO that adds to the idea of the density of immanence. First, he defines the body as an open system, a series of interactions between the external world and the organs that make up the body. Effectively, there is no interiority to the body, and by extension there is no psychological interiority, but rather the body itself is a constantly folding border between world and body organs, a border which creates a fractal plane through its labyrinthine recursions:
…all its [the body’s] potential singular states are determined by a fractal attractor [which is] the body’s plane of consistency….The BwO is a subset of the body’s plane of consistency: the attractor segment containing the repertory of potential states among which it effectively chooses. (A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p.71)
On the personal level, to have command of “the entire plane of consistency” would be to have achieved a kind of Buddhahood, where you command every single possible state, again physical and psychological, there being no real division here, which of course would give you an immediate understanding of the state of every human being. The BwO, as a subset is still an unachievable state according to 1000 Plateaus: “You never reach the Body without Organs, you never reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit.” (p. 150)
Lorenz Strange Attractor
Within that subset which is the BwO, the points along the lines that make up the subset are of infinite density, i.e. between each two points or potential states, there is another state. This is Deleuze and Guattari’s point about the infinite density of immanence. In immanence there is perpetual movement and continued development. Desire is both that which moves through the BwO’s gradients and causes the movement through them. Desire, as a self-referential process of production, finds intensity where it finds free range, and for those open to desire’s movements, a life lived better.
Oedipal bodies are the kind of bodies (and psychic spaces) most of us inhabit, i.e., the psychoanalytic Freudian body which Deleuze and Guattari critique in Anti-Oedipus. As such, this Oedipal body is stuck in a number of potential states where the flow of desire gets blocked either through its removal (castration), its grounding in pleasure (masturbation), or its sequestration in an illusion of interiority (fantasy). This is the unholy trio imposed upon us by priestly intervention, a prime example being the slave morality of Christianity so despised by Nietzsche. There is no flow to new states but just endless repetition of starts and stops, like the movie Groundhog Day. With more predictable habits, we become more susceptible to societal controls.
As can be gleaned from the epigraph, Cézanne’s “Nature” became his BwO, his asymptotic place of immanence. His relating to “Nature” through painting was clearly a kind of Yoga-like process without endpoint that awakened a desire to produce an ever-accelerating intensity of expression. Just as in 1000 Plateaus (pp. 155–156) where the masochist produced a kind of BwO through “becoming a horse” in his play with his mistress, Cézanne came close to reaching the intensity promised by the BwO through “becoming Nature,” a process that steered clear of all the clichés and received notions we traditionally associate with painting Nature. Again, Cézanne, in his letter to Emile Bernard dated May 12, 1904, makes it very clear that for him the experience of Nature trumps any tradition:
The Louvre is a good book to consult but it must be only an intermediary. The real and immense study to be undertaken is in the manifold picture of nature.
The important thing as it relates to the future development of interdisciplinary art is that Cézanne fundamentally eschewed all the signposts we traditionally impose on the artist’s journey and chose to put everything on the same level, embracing horizontality. As Madoff puts in his lecture on Cézanne:
Everything is seen in the act of assembling itself, just as Cézanne constantly struggled to enter, in Marc Augé’s use of the word, a state of oblivion — to forget the habits of seeing from the past, from the conventional state of being merely human, and to rebegin, to embody another, radically different subjectivity fused with nature that “opens up into every possible future without favoring a single one.” (Oblivion, page 57) (AP Art History I, Lecture #4, p. 7)
Cézanne insisted in finding his own way, which in the end had a cost in the quality of his attachments with others-his cohorts from Paris, his wife and son, his childhood friend Zola, and admirers like Emile Bernard. He chose to wrestle with the intensity of his sensations in their response to landscape, still lives and portraiture. He pitted their immanence, with all its chaotic power, against all the accepted notions of his day, allowing a genuine encounter to take place. This encounter radically destabilized traditional methods of knowing: one-point perspective, linear ideas of the passage of time, how objects function in space, e.g. figure versus ground, the separation of the senses versus synesthesia, and perhaps most radically, the idea of interiority in the face of actual felt and realized experience.
Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902
The painting above hangs in the Princeton Art Museum, and when I was an undergraduate there I looked at it many, many times. He has the background, middle ground and foreground layered like so many strata of rock and indeed there is something lapidary about the apparent solidity of the composition and the crystalline interlocking polygons of color. And yet if you look at the middle ground you can see that there is this apparent instability happening in the bottom third just left of center where there is a pulsating stroke of dark red. When I first noticed it I was shocked. You can’t see it in the reproduction, but close to that patch of dark red are hairs from his brush where evidently in his frustration, he tried to impale the canvas with this brush-something he famously did more than once.
God knows what was going through his mind, but clearly he was involved in this painting with an intensity that few of us can manage, and it shows! The density of experience brings to mind the fractal metaphor of the BwO with its own lines of infinite density. This is one painting which blossoms under scrutiny, always appearing fresh with every viewing. Every single square millimeter of that canvas got the same amount of attention, a veritable mesh of painted experience, and the whole vibrates with energy. By bringing everything to painting, Cézanne dismantled an entire class of assumptions about the making of art as something somehow set apart from the world. The world, and its chaos, could also “become art,” just as the artist could somehow “become Nature.” If anything in the world is fair game to “become art” and a vehicle to furthering the flow of desire. It is not surprising then that Madoff moves in the next lecture to Duchamp to explore his notion of interdisciplinarity.
From Duchamp’s readymades to the contemporary artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s science experiments, this “cultural trajectory toward horizontality” seems to be driving artists’ ever-wider involvement with both social space and the physical world, as well as an ever-deeper involvement in specific disciplines, which may have little to do with art as we think we understand it. 1000 Plateaus mentioned the likelihood of monstrous crossbreeds between previously existing process directed toward the BwO. Make it so! Cross-breed courtly love, Taoist meditation, Samkhya (the philosophical underpinning to Yoga), Alchemy, Sufism, and Shamanism with social practice, microbiology, economics, machine tooling and so on. To go between the strata and destabilize, which is key to the involution so central to moving toward the BwO requires this dual movement both out and in.