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What is a Question?

Is there a non-trivial way of answering the question, “What is a question?” As tempting, and as natural, as it is to seek some time and space by dallying with the trivial, accepting the adventitious, and deferring to the instinct to defer the real challenges of this question, I shall try to avoid each of these delays for as long [End Page 36] as I can. I want to avoid the anything-goes ambiguity in the “a” in this question, to turn it into something somewhat more demanding, to ask “What is it to question?” I am after the difference between the response, “That’s a good question” and the response, “That’s a really good question”—the difference, that is, between asking for a moment to select the appropriate answer from those that are ready to go and signaling that I don’t know the answer, and acknowledging that you have asked me actually to think.

In his most direct response to this challenge, no less a figure than Martin Heidegger unfolded a sequence of delays and deferrals before getting down to the essentials. He did so in his 1951-1952 lectures “Was Heisst Denken?”—which may be plainly translated as “What is Thinking?” but is more accurately rendered, in the author’s own words, as “What is Called Thinking?” After a long but intriguing rumination on the master/slave relations inherent to teaching, and on why teaching is more difficult than learning, he charts four ways in which the question about thinking might be posed, all of them relevant to our challenge. First, he asks what is immediately conjured, in ordinary language use, by the word “thinking.” Second, he asks how traditional doctrine conceives and defines what we have named “thinking.” By “traditional doctrine” he means European thought since the Greeks, to the definition and refutation of which he devoted most of this own thinking. Third, he asks what we need to do in order to be able to think well. Finally, and most importantly, he asks, “What is it that calls us, as it were, commands us to think,” that “calls us into thinking?”1

It will have escaped no one that these answers are themselves questions, that they aim towards arriving at one, universal, essential answer, but also that they do so by pointing out a pathway from ordinary language use and commonsense through a series of steps. Everyday, implicitly unreflective thought is matched against “two and a half thousand years” of thought about thought, the great traditions of philosophical, scientific, and even religious traditions of the West and (less so, but quite strongly in other late essays) of the East. Both are subject to intense interrogation in order to seek fresh understandings of what it is to be in the world. Doing so might enable the questioner to arrive at the fourth and final state, one in which interrogative thinking about what it is to be in the world becomes the true response to the call of the world, the call of Being itself.

How is this relevant to thinking within and about the arts? Take this for testimony: after the first of three pilgrimages to Cézanne’s painting sites at Aix, undertaken toward the end of his life, Heidegger commented, “Cézanne was not a philosopher, but he understood all of philosophy. In a few words, he summed up everything I have tried to express. He said: ‘Life is terrifying.’ I have been saying just that for forty years.”2 After the third visit, on which the philosopher retraced the painter’s footsteps to the [End Page 37] spot overlooking the Bibémus quarry where Mont Sainte-Victoire comes into view, he announced that he had just walked “the path to which, from beginning to end, my own path as a thinker corresponds in its way.”3

I take these to be non-trivial answers to my reformulation of the editors’ question. Having also walked on those tracks on those same hills and spent some years looking closely at the paintings made there, I see something in Cézanne’s answer that orients it differently—that, in fact, opens it out to deconstructive possibility more so than does Heidegger’s residual quest for “essential rightness.” Art historian Griselda Pollock puts the key question succinctly: “What can we say about Cézanne these days?”4 In a recent essay entitled “Cézanne: Figuring Truth in Painting,”5 I expand her question along these lines. For those unwilling to embrace contemporaneity wholeheartedly (who could do so, and remain critically contemporary?), the key question becomes, “Do the modes of observation and analysis (or, if you prefer, description and evaluation) so painstakingly developed to give us trenchant accounts of modern art remain valid when to comes to contemporary art––the art, surely, of a different kind of time?” Whatever answer we might arrive at, my firm conviction is that we should start from the work being made today, not from more abstract concerns about the limits or potentials of the interpretive disciplines. Which contemporary artists are aiding us in figuring the truths adequate to our present contemporaneity? How are they doing so? How does such figuring itself figure within the alloy of other motivations that drive them, or vex them? What obstacles do they face? What is fundamentally different about the world in which they must operate?

For some years, I have been tracking a number of the answers to these questions canvased in artworlds all over the world, and offering some of my own, in books such as What is Contemporary Art?6 I conclude my essay on Cézanne with this short-form answer: Contemporary truth, if it is to be found, remains the highly chancy outcome of the kind of search that Cézanne undertook, without compromise, in his time. [End Page 38]

Finally, a sideways glance towards one’s experience as a teacher reminds us that we can identify those moments when seeing the shape of a question can be far more important than knowing how to unfold a stacked deck of given knowledges. For example, those of us blessed with brilliant graduate students know that to guide them towards finding what we call “your research question” is, perhaps, our most challenging responsibility. It is also the most rewarding aspect of the role, and is so for all concerned. Once found, an inchoate sea of intuitions and information, ambitions and anxieties, desires and fears reconfigure into the edges of a continent calling out to be explored. The waters are shallow but shifting, blunt facts lie about in clumps, the spaces between them are uncertain, and there are sharks. At the same time––impossibly––the horizon of possibility seems to stretch into infinite distances, perhaps beyond the knowable limits of the universe. Such is the process I also undergo. The “topic area” becomes, magically, a task. It has begun to be a terrain on which I may, in due time, find my pace and my voice. Along the way, there will be many more questions, large and small, but they will, I must trust, eventually add up to an answer to the research question. Actually, I will have long surpassed it, because it will dawn on me that I have all along been pursuing the larger “world question” that, unknowingly, drew me to the topic in the first place, and is propelling me through these years of inquiry, asking me to add what I have found to the world’s incessant accounting for itself.

Terry Smith

TERRY SMITH, FAHA, CIHA, is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. He is the author or editor of fifteen books, including Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012) and Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011). His major research interests are contemporary art of the world; the histories of multiple modernities and modernisms; the history and theory of contemporaneity; and the historiography of art history and art criticism.


1. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

2. Martin Heidegger in conversation with the painter Andre Masson in 1956; cited by Françoise Will-Levaillant, ed., Le Rebelle du surrealisme (Paris: Hermann, 1976), 138.

3. Cited by Jean Beaufret, “Heidegger et la question de l’histoire,” in Dialogue avec Heidegger, vol. 3 (Paris: Minuit, 1974), 155. Both the painter and the philosopher permitted egregious political perspectives to contaminate the ethical structure of their work. If Cézanne genuinely loved Pissarro, when it came to taking sides, he was an anti-Dreyfusard. The parallels to Heidegger are obvious and are becoming more so as more information confirming his anti-Semitism is released.

4. Griselda Pollock, “What can we say about Cézanne these days?” Oxford Art Journal 13, no. 1 (1990): 95-101.

5. Terry Smith, “Cézanne: Figuring Truth in Painting,” boundary 2 43, no. 4 (2016): 71-125.

6. See Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), and, for example, The Contemporary Composition (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016). [End Page 39]