restricted access Is There Truth in Art?
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Reviewed by
Herman Rapaport. Is There Truth in Art? Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. xvii + 221 pp.

Rapaport’s book ranges across twentieth-century art media (poetry, prose narrative, music, installation art, and film) as it pursues its title question within a twentieth-century tradition of postmetaphysical continental philosophy, as framed through selected works of Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Jacques Derrida. In order to appreciate the significance of Rapaport’s question (“is there truth in art?”), readers inclined to separate the two (art and philosophy) should consider that the history of interpretation (thus most writings about artworks) is deeply complicitous with metaphysico-philosophical formulations. To the degree that this unavoidable complicity holds true, the greater truth of artwork-based truth, will also, to the degree of its truthfulness, tend toward postmetaphysical and differential truth (a claim which would also apply across the board—from critical writings on architecture or fine arts to film and literary theory).

In other words the elusive thinking of difference in postmetaphysical critique is “the truth of the artwork.” “Metaphysics” is the name for entrenched conceptual representations that fit the dense specificities “of nature and artworks” into the portable, elastic typological, and typifying schemes of the master discourse of truth, philosophy. While “metaphysics” constructs truths (about matter, being, essences, God, souls, the meaning of history, artwork truth, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, etc.) through the arbitrary omission of differences, postmetaphysical thinking is attuned to the way in which concepts (“the [End Page 545] union of representations,” as Kant defines them) do violence to singular instances by standardizing them into “one-size-fits-all” abstractions. Violating the law of contradiction, the antiessentialist and antifoundationalist truth of postmetaphysics “is and isn’t part of any regime.” The thinking of difference has to do with a truth that hovers both within the artistic material instance—but, more importantly, hovers elsewhere or otherwise (or: over, alongside, or beyond—choose your prepositional metaphor or adverb). Displacing assumed continuities between perception and language, the truth of art disrupts “the mimetic relation between what is shown and what is told.” Whether it is imaged as a flash of light or as the nonevent of a natural muteness, artwork truth can only be traced out over against the “unthink-away-able” horizons of received truth associations: the truth in art, then, gravitates around “something disclosive, though not in a mimetic sense,” and involves a “non-identity within identity, a moment which cannot simply return to itself.”

Because it turns on trace events, discourse on difference takes the risk that the differences it makes (differential forces caught in its frames) may fade out into mere nonsignificance even as they are caught with greater precision; this risk is countered by the author’s tendency to trace out difference through instances of spectacular horror in the historical real. As it relies much on the thematic registers of its chosen art examples to illustrate the truth of art, Rapaport’s book is intriguing in the way it consistently frames artwork truth against the receding horizons of metaphysicality, the latter tellingly scored into its unimaginable actual potential for violence and horror. The Holocaust, a subtext in this book, is complexly symptomatic of the ways in which truth (as postmetaphysical, artwork truth) is a complex deviation from its established, “clear and distinct” conceptualizations. For instance, living people, or the once living victims of Nazi death camps, are in a way like artworks—sui generis, active singularities (related through a generic stem) which have been overtaken by transportable concepts (compartments), the name of a person (for instance, “Aurélia Steiner”), just as the name of an artwork achievement (a “Van Gogh”) never coincides with its own material instance. Artworks remind philosophy of its own inexpungible metaphysics, a body which, in this book, often appears in horrific images and monstrous figures of difference.

When the discursive topoi of differential philosophy (such as Heidegger’s “open region” or Derrida’s “trace”) pass through or are [End Page 546] filtered into the material media of the “work” (that particular textual, historical, medial, geopolitical nexus called “the artwork”), something happens—with new differentiations of difference stimulated...