Pictorial Rationality, transculturalism, and the work of art

Andrews, Jorella G.. 2019. Pictorial Rationality, transculturalism, and the work of art. In: Helen Fielding and Mariana Ortega, eds. Life in Art, Phenomenology, Aesthetics, and Identity. UNSPECIFIED. [Book Section] (Forthcoming)

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Abstract or Description

This chapter engages with questions of community and difference. Historically, these questions have been raised within a diversity of philosophical, cultural and political contexts but it is in the field of transcultural scholarship, which first emerged in the 1940s, that they have been examined with particular focus and urgency. My aim is to bring to these discussions specific insights derived from phenomenology, drawing on the French twentieth-century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s non-dualistic thought, and on phenomenologically-based engagements with art and aesthetics.

Merleau-Ponty’s thought may not immediately come to mind where questions of transcultural engagement are concerned. As I will show, however — and although he did not use the terminology of transculturalism — in his early, non-dualistic reformulations of thought he presented the body itself (or, as he put it in the Phenomenology of Perception of 1945, the ‘body-subject’) as that which is precisely and fundamentally always-already experienced as such a site of transcultural exchange. In his late writings, exchanges of this kind — again not formulated as ‘transcultural’ per se — were fundamental to such key ontological concepts as the ‘Flesh’ of the world (that ‘elemental being’ which he saw to precede any notions of self and other, subject and object, that might subsequently arise) and ‘intermundane space’ (l'intermonde) where ‘our gazes are found to cross and our perceptions overlap’: ‘… a pell-mell ensemble of bodies and minds, promiscuity of visages, words, actions, with, between them all, that cohesion which cannot be denied them since they are all differences, extreme divergencies of one same something’. Furthermore, for Merleau-Ponty, it was by means of the materially- as well as symbolically-embedded investigations afforded by the painter’s/artist’s body that profoundly nuanced and radical insights might be gleaned in this regard. The particular Merleau-Pontean practice/phenomenon that I will explore in this chapter is that of ‘pictorial rationality’ as discussed in the published notes for his 1954-55 Collège de France lecture on ‘The Institution of a Work of Art’. I will argue that for Merleau-Ponty the challenges and disjunctions associated with difference, that transcultural theorists have often presented as problematics to be resolved, are in fact fundamental to being, always and everywhere, albeit in ever-different configurations.

Debating transculturalism

When the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz coined the term transculturation (also transculturalism) in 1940, he described it as ‘a set of on-going transmutations; it is full of creativity and never ceases,’ he wrote, ‘it is irreversible. It is always a process in which we give something in exchange for what we receive: the two parts of the equation end up being modified.’ Within Ortiz’s context, namely his examinations of the impact of colonialism and slavery in the Americas (amongst other things he was the founder of Afro-Cuban studies) these two parts were what he called a ‘native culture’ and a ‘conquering culture’. ‘From this process,’ Ortiz continued, ‘springs not a patchwork of features, but a new phenomenon, original and independent.’ At issue was the quest to create what he conceptualized as a new common culture. Here, though, alongside the evident fluidities at issue, dialectically-resolved oppositions are in play. This positioning is fundamentally different to the Merleau-Pontean orientations outlined above. A very different understanding of the pre-requisites for community is also presented. Beyond Ortiz’s formulations and into the present, a complexity of concepts and terms, practices, and shades of meaning has accrued around the question of how, with our differences, we are to live together well.

Ortiz’s conception of the outcomes of transculturation may well be idealized — not a disarticulated patchwork of effects and affects but, if I have understood him correctly, the more-or-less integrated surface of closely woven fabric. But it is clear that embedded in this unstoppable, and often ambiguous process there is, necessarily, on both sides, on all sides, the phenomenon of loss. For even at its most accommodating, transcultural experience is also, always, powered — and more often than not also hindered, indeed immobilized — by difficult, often unspeakably, unthinkably, painful feelings. In 1994, for instance, the Hong Kong born, Los Angeles based artist Simon Leung, whose work since the 1990s has consistently engaged with issues of displacement caused by war, wrote uncompromisingly that ‘assimilation is a continual grasping of fragmented information, displacing old habits — an ecology of the Self in which differences are enacted against the terms of the self.’ More recently, the curator Okwei Enwezor wrote with urgency, in his catalogue introduction to the 2012 Paris Triennial at the Palais de Tokyo, about today’s increasingly pressurized contexts of transcultural encounter. His exhibition, Intense Proximity, sought to address the problem of ever growing xenophobia in France. ‘In the last half century’, he wrote, ‘increased mobility and migration have forced the revision of the rules of proximity, eroding cultural borders, exacerbating the relationship between guests and hosts.’ He added: ‘Rather than practices of good neighbourliness and shared space, greater proximity — that is to say, active, unceasing contact between different cultural communities — have instead led to spatial and temporal disjunctions.’ To the ever-increasing global mobility of bodies described by Enwezor, we must of course add the ever increasing mobility of images of difference — indeed, and often, images in which difference is presented as intractably conflictual and irresolvable.

For Enwezor all of this means ‘that contemporary societies need to define how to manage conflict, [how to] live with cultural dissensus within conditions of hostility and non-recognition’. One of the ways in which he developed this theme was by attempting to progress along a dangerous fault-line, but one that must be traversed — ‘the juncture between two social facts of contact: hostility and hospitality.’ But how can such hostility, such inhospitality, be endured, let alone overcome, even transformed? And, pointedly, if ‘hosts’ cannot be hospitable, is it possible for those who have been identified as unwelcome ‘guests’ to be so? A necessity surely, if having found themselves positioned in this way, such guests—they, or we—wish nonetheless to live with agency and generosity, and not as immobilized and resource-less victims. A duality is again in evidence here — what about responses of indifference, for instance, which also play a role? But Enwezor’s remark (found in his footnotes) that hostility and hospitality are etymologically related, thus not fundamentally the opponents they first appear to be, aligns with the non-oppositional orientations that form the bedrock of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological thought, thus enabling a different emotional as well as intellectual point of entry into these debates.
Pictorial rationality and the work of art

In ‘The Institution of a Work of Art’, Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘There is a pictorial rationality as there is a rationality of a painter’s work, rationality not of completion but of ‘investigation’. Moreover, this is a rationality that eschews propositional logic and tends towards de-categorization, positioning works of art as entities capable of proffering alternatives to the already-elaborated ideas we may bring to them and to life more broadly. Given that transcultural tension is so often immediately triggered by visual cues, the alternate understandings and evaluations offered by pictorial rationalism seem vital. In this chapter, therefore, I foreground this concept, also examining it within its broader framing context, namely, Merleau-Ponty’s discussions of what he referred to as ‘instituting’ rather than ‘constituting’ thought. Significantly, Merleau-Ponty’s explorations of ‘institution’ are positioned with respect to such issues as ‘relation to the world’, ‘relation to others’, and ‘feeling’.

In order to further pursue this notion of pictorial rationality and the terrain it opens up in terms of furthering our understanding of transculturalism I will also:

(1) think, phenomenologically, in the presence of art, where the work (or agency) of art is experienced as immersing us in environments characterized by the cutting, transposition and/or emergence of meanings the deep cultural and critical significance of which are not immediately explicable. Key will be an encounter with a contemporary work that has had an enduring impact on me: the Chinese artist Yang Xinguang’s installation Thin, of 2009, in which the discarded branches of pruned fruit trees are violently transfigured and arranged within the gallery space to resemble a disjointed ‘community’ of bleached bone-like entities.

(2) I will engage with suggestive ideas proposed in Aud Sissel Hoel and Annamaria Carusi’s 2018 essay ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Measuring Body’. Here, the measuring body is a ‘conceptual tool’ derived from Merleau-Ponty’s writing and not a named concept found within it. Here too, ‘“measuring” and related terms such as “measure’ and “‘measurement” are conceived more broadly than their strictly quantitative meaning. Indeed … Merleau-Ponty treats “measurement” as an ontological concept that concerns the inner scaffolding of the existential field, the “invisible armature” of the perceived.’ At issue ‘is the complicity and reversibility between measuring agencies and measured phenomena.’ Also at issue (and of relevance where discussions of art are concerned) is what the authors describe as ‘the relative autonomy of symbolisms and tools and their capacity to decentre the perceiving body’.

Item Type:

Book Section


community, difference, phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, transculturalism, transculturation

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


June 2019Submitted

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

11 Jan 2019 09:22

Last Modified:

08 Apr 2021 13:11



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