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Deconstruction and the Work of Art

4 January 2022

Deconstruction and the Work of Art

Still from Seans : hommage á Antonin Artaud, dir. Percival, 1977; Image Credit:

Excerpt from Deconstruction and the Work  of Art: Visual Arts and Their Critique in Contemporary French Thought by Martta Heikkilä (Lanham: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

The Groundless Ground and the Automatism of the Author: Antonin Artaud

Derrida’s inquiry into the thinking of the material conditions of painting leads to questions concerning its concrete framing. These issues are especially critical when thinking of contemporary practices of painting and other art forms that seem to be becoming more conceptual and philosophical and less medium specific than before. In Derrida’s thinking, the existence of the ground assures the inimitable singularity of the painting and all its details. However, the question of the ground is now more complex than before, for the material conditions of painting require an examination of their material support: how to describe it, and does it have any present identity? Is there still a material basis of which the painting, or any kind of work of art, would be undetachable, in a way that would prevent it from being assimilated into language?

Nowadays, larger varieties of works are referred to as paintings than before. There may be no paint or color applied by the artist at all in them, for example in cases where the work is made of fabric or exists only in the form of digital algorithms. The support becomes the object of attention if the colored material has a shape other than a conventional flat, two-dimensional painting, like a sculptural figure or a work that is made of plastic and pieces of wood, metal, or ready-made objects.

The support is Derrida’s focus in his studies of Antonin Artaud’s (1896–1948) life and works since the 1960s. (1) Apart from Artaud’s vocation as a playwright, poet, actor and theatre director, Artaud made from the late 1910s onwards a considerable amount of drawings and paintings. In his extensive texts on Artaud’s pictorial work, Derrida puts forward the idea that Artaud’s drawings are essentially concerned with writing – but, as becomes obvious, not only for the reason that they contain sentences. In a letter to Jean Paulhan from 1945, Artaud himself describes his illustrations as “written drawings,” a nomination which becomes the first point of reference in Derrida’s analysis. (2) In addition, Derrida also refers to Artaud’s drawings as “pictographic work.” (3) Such descriptions point to the idea that drawings and writing have an identical function for Artaud and that they concur toward the same end. (4) Several adjoining attributes connect drawing and writing: among these are citation, repetition, indirect nomination, invisible quotation marks, and allusion to the discourse of the other. (5) Artaud’s graphic traits and writing – image and language in drawings – exist outside of each other, like in a kind of ecstasis, in which they remain inseparable and undetachable. (6)

In the essay “Maddening the Subjectile,” Derrida’s central concept is the “subjectile” in Artaud’s work. Literally, this word points to space in between, that is, ground, medium, interposition or meddling. The subjectile is simultaneously a support and a surface, a subject and an object. In drawings, the subjectile designates the instability between the ground and the depicted subject or motif. (7) The drawing becomes a stage of the subjectile for the reason that it has the potential of destabilizing the identity and the limits of signification: we cannot say what, in a drawing or any other work of art, constitutes its veritable subject and what counts as supplement and context. The paradox – which forms the crux of Derrida’s interpretation – follows from this: Artaud’s drawings and paintings have the character of the subjectile, for they are positioned between the inside and the outside, the ground and the “subject” of the image, and this position does not cease to alternate. (8) It is interesting to notice that a similar shift takes place in Jean-Luc Nancy’s deconstruction of the relation of the figure and the ground. As Nancy explains, in a painting the presence of a thing exchanges with its own disappearance. Between the figure and the ground takes place a movement of alternation. (9) This presence is not permanence of a visible figure, but a singular, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, discontinuous and discrete event of coming into presence: “presence only comes in the repetition of its coming” and reproduction of the unique presence. Nancy describes it as an event of discretion and plasticity – “a presence that mimes itself.”

Regarding the constant change of places between the figure and the support, Derrida’s theme of the parergon comes no doubt close to the effect inherent in Artaud’s works of art. The subjectile or support between the subject and the object gradually takes over the drawings, remaining a “place of birth” for them: “Violently mishandled, the parergon will be from now on incorporated in the work, it will make part of it. Its exteriority, its transcendent neutrality, its mute authority will no longer be intact.” (10) Thus, in Artaud’s drawings the margin, which usually frames the picture, enters the space of the figure, so that the identity of the work of art becomes unstable.

The structure of drawing corresponds to that of writing in that the drawing has the structure of the original supplement that also marks the condition of linguistic sense. The subjectile, being both the ground of the image, its visible exterior and its material, is the work of art at its moment of birth. Here also, Derrida is looking after uniqueness of the work of art, its sense outside of significations, which, in the manner of idioms of language, defies translation. The subjectile informs us about the event-like emergence of the work of art, its unrepeatable character, “which is as distinct from the form as from the meaning and the representation.” (11) The subjectile hence resists being determined by any kinds of oppositions. Derrida refers to both language and drawing as “stages” or “scenes,” which draw their power, not from Cartesian “clear ideas,” but rather from the spontaneous creation “on stage” without resorting to words. (12) The mise en scène – in a word, theater – is their moment.

Yet we may well inquire why the subjectile, a quality that defines Artaud’s drawings, seems to become accessible mainly in accordance with the paradigms of writing. In “Maddening the Subjectile” Derrida explores what constitutes the visual image in Artaud’s drawings and paintings, in which Artaud often writes, although he never writes about them. (13) On such basis, Derrida ends up addressing Artaud’s drawings and paintings as pictograms. In their current meaning, “pictograms” stand for pictorial symbols for a word or phrase. Derrida uses this term to point to the fact that in Artaud’s works painting, drawing and writing are merged, with no borders between either different arts or genres, nor between supports or substances. (14) Pictograms are both subjects and objects at the same time, and neither of these: they do not portray the full presence of the depicted thing. At hand are never “ob-jects or subjects present for us,” for notions such as the subject and object are all about “inertia.” (15) Artaud’s writings and drawings seem to possess the same function: they destabilize the historical relation between the subject, the object and the subjectile; both pictures and inserted phrases bring with them “intonation and rhythm.” (16) Artaud’s pictograms are always installed in an interval between divisions such as above and below, visible and invisible, before and behind, this side and that; they are concerned with singularity and “the dynamics and energy of a motion.” (17)

Derrida’s treatise of Artaud involves the critique of the author, a theme that is equally in philosophical focus in Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. (18) For Derrida’s conception of art the intention of the artist is not the primary source of meanings, nor is the author in general the solely responsible for the work. With these notions, he participates in the widespread discussion initiated by Roland Barthes’ essay “Death of the Author” in 1968 and continued by Michel Foucault in “What Is the Author?” in 1969. Yet the idea that the work of art may not be fully controlled by the author and is instead concerned with the effect of chance is already visible in automatism. Automatism is a method of producing paintings or drawings, as well as writing or other work, in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the movements of the hand. Thereby he or she allows the unconscious mind to take over as if “without will.” In automatism, spontaneity is the principle. Although some artists, like the British landscape painter Alexander Cozens in the 18th century, experimented with automatic painting by using watercolors, automatism is a mostly 20th-century phenomenon. The Dadaists, especially Hans Arp, made occasional use of automatism, but for the Surrealists it was an important part of their artistic creation. In the first Surrealist Manifesto André Breton (1896–1966) describes surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its purest state, by which one proposes to express … the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of control exercized by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” (19) The exploration of the unconscious through the methods of automatic drawing that included a passive and receptive state of mind was supposed to lead to the discovery of some deeply personal psychological layers of the draughtsman’s mind.

In his discussion of Antonin Artaud’s surrealist drawings, the influence of the automatic drawing and writing is probable. The “automatic” drawing was not preoccupied by the trace, at least not in the sense of conveying an intended, definite message. As the outcome of the movement of the artist’s hand, the physical product constituted the picture. However, it is doubtful whether it can be hold as a drawing, at least if “drawing” is believed to be a conscious trace left on the ground by a chosen medium. In examining what constitutes the drawing in the moment of its coming into existence in the movement of the draughtsman’s hand, Derrida finds a special interest in Artaud’s account that his drawings are not drawings but closer to the act of giving birth to the trace:

My drawings are not drawings but documents, // they have to be seen and what is in them has to be understood, // if they were being judged just from the artistic or lifelike point of view, as an object speaking and successful, you would say: that is very bold, but it lacks manual skill and technical formation and Mr. Artaud as a draftsman is still just a beginner, it will take him ten years of personal apprenticeship or in the polytechnics of the beaux-arts. // Which is false because I worked ten years on drawing my entire existence // but I despaired of pure drawing. … We have a mote in our eye from the fact that our present ocular vision is deformed, repressed oppressed, set back, and suffocated by a certain wrongdoing on the principle of our cranial box, as on the dental architecture of our being, from the coccyx at the base of the vertebrae to the place of the forceps sustaining the brain. // Struggling against this wrongdoing, I have pointed up and polished all the angers of my struggle, in the light of a certain number of totems of beings, and there remain these miseries, my drawings. (20)

To Artaud’s drawings belongs perhaps an unintentionality and dispossession of the “artistic” result – they are perhaps art without art, and in a sense, art without author, or the author has detached himself of the requirement of talent and purpose in the action of drawing. At the same time, in Artaud’s works of art seems to remain an ambiguity about the relation between the subject and the object. If the act of drawing is unintentional and “automatically” guided by the leaving of strokes, it may not be obvious who is drawing: the artist or the trace? In this process, drawing implies even something that comes close to the death of the author.

In considering Artaud’s drawings as written drawings, Derrida claims that Artaud writes what cannot be written. Derrida’s argumentation is thus grounded in an extended understanding of writing, to which the visual sphere is repeatedly returned. Hovering between writing and drawing, Artaud’s work holds the aspect of automatic writing and drawing. (21) The notion of automatic writing was essentially related to “pure psychic automatism,” as the French poet André Breton defined surrealism in the Manifesto of Surrealism, published in Paris in 1924. (22) Automatic drawing was considered as a means of expressing the subconscious and, to use Breton’s expression, the “actual functioning of thought,” when the drawing or writing hand was allowed to move “randomly” across the paper, free of rational control or ethical or aesthetic concerns. Several artists of the time, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy among them, adopted this method that suggested drawing as an involuntary actions that bypassed the command of the conscious mind. Connected with the automatism method several artists, Miró among them, used the biomorphic technique. By employing it, he generated organic images whose form relates to biological forms, while figures created biomorphically do not imitate the world in any realistic manner.

It seems now evident that automatic writing and drawing cannot be preoccupied by any trace, if drawing a trace is considered the result of intentional activity. In question rather appears to be the physical product of the hand. Evidently, in speaking of automatic drawing, the deliberate action of the draughtsman does not constitute the picture in the way of intentional outlining. The free but perhaps not fully uncontrolled movement of the hand may give the motivation for Artaud’s words: “My drawings are not drawings.” In addition to unintentionality at the base of the more or less automatic movement of the hand, his words can connote the artist’s “disavowal” of the outcome of his work: it is no longer clear who has done this drawing or is entitled to sign it. An ambiguity is therefore born in the relation between the subject and the object of the work of art. Finally, a configuration like this may bring us in front of the questions concerning the death of the author. Unintentionality and dispossession of the “artistic” result make one think of the ambiguity of relation between the subject and the object in making art. At the same time, automatism as a technique corresponds the deconstructive aims in reading texts: the purpose is not to capture the author’s intention, but to view writing and text as such. Instead of reasoning or the contents of the author’s psyche, the text or painting is suggested to disclose, right on its perceptible surface, all that is there. The death of the author amounts to the birth of writing and image.



1. See Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (1978), 212–245, 292–316.

2. Antonin Artaud, Œuvres complètes XI (1974), 20.

3. Jacques Derrida, “Maddening the Subjectile” (1994), 170–171.

4. Paule Thévenin, “The Search for a Lost World” (1998), 22.

5. Derrida, “Maddening the Subjectile,” 154.

6. Derrida, Penser à ne pas voir (2013), 131; see also Ginette Michaud, Jacques Derrida: L’art du contretemps (2014), 244–245.

7. Derrida, “Maddening the Subjectile,” 154–159.

8. Derrida, “Maddening the Subjectile,” 167.

9. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (1993), 345–350.

10. Derrida, “To Unsense the Subjectile” (1998), 123.

11. Derrida, “Maddening the Subjectile” (1994), 159.

12. Ibid., 161.

13. Ibid., 163.

14. Ibid., 170.

15. Ibid., 164–165.

16. Ibid., 171.

17. Ibid., 165.

18. Michel Foucault, “What Is the Author?” (1969); Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968).

19. André Breton, Surrealist Manifesto (1924), in Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, (1994), 438.

20. Derrida, “To Unsense the Subjectile,” 106; Antonin Artaud, Œuvres complètes XXI (1985), 266–267, cit. Derrida.

21. Derrida, “To Unsense the Subjectile,” 103.

22. See André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (1969).

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