Introduction | Suspicion
I know of no more dismal contemporary comedy, either in Great Britain or in the United States, than the revolutionary pretenses of our academics, who persuade themselves that they speak for the insulted and injured of the world by denying the aesthetic primacy of Shakespeare, or by insisting that aesthetic eminence of any sort is merely a capitalistic mystification.
We are not concerned with a later poet’s justification of constructing the precursor’s influence, nor of history’s presence within projects. In the quotation above, Harold Bloom unveils the myth that is the aesthetic of academics, defining complacency as a contemporary comedy, and hardly revolutionary. This may only have been driven by Bloom’s unappeasable satisfaction with academic methods, his relentless pleasure in questioning hierarchies. Our goal is to illuminate and make operative the internal mechanism of a critical anxiety that will unmask fallacies, and reveal truths. An infinite drive to accomplish, to question; an insatiable suspicion of everything that nevertheless has a determined goal, to place under the interrogation lamp a line such as: “Art is the truth setting itself to work.” If so, when is the point stabilized enough to ground the conceptual development of such a task?
A critical anxiety, by perpetually questioning, establishes a distance from the project under review, thereby framing not only illusions that are becoming suspect, but also the points of departure that will define nascent territories of conceptual expression. In constantly questioning, misreading is inevitable. Yet, whether a misreading derived from anxiety is erroneous in its diagnosis, by doing so, it nonetheless withdraws itself far enough away from the original to create a plane for expanding thematics. Towards an infinite thematics, a working territory for conceptual development, will have a source, either through a historical influence, or a creative misreading. Employing a critical anxiety will take pleasure from framing debates, such as the one we will see in the following text, about a painting of a pair of shoes.
From the darkness of the earth worn into the shoes, so begins Martin Heidegger’s theatrical narration behind Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes, in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art. Heidegger’s analysis of the painting attempts to reveal the essence of the work of art, as the work of art itself. Yet, it is here where Heidegger falls into his own trap, the one set up by his very own narrative, a projection of a hallucinogenic fiction that limits the comprehension of the work, therefore, masking the truth within the painting. From Athena to authorless self-referential signs, architecture has also suffered from the symptoms of narration, without ever clinically being diagnosed with a disease. Redundantly, architects apply facades of meaning through descriptive narrations of their projects, as some apply decorative facades to buildings. Quaint stories may be selling points to a client, but narrations require faith in the fallacy of authorizing a project’s value. Meyer Shapiro, formally an art history professor at Columbia University, criticized Heidegger and The Origin of the Work of Art, by drawing attention to the fictive narrative applied to Van Gogh’s painting of 1886:
The toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind.
This dramatic description of Van Gogh’s painting was applied roughly fifty years after it was finished; albeit Heidegger, who oddly enough claimed in his essay, that “it would be the worst self-deception to think that our description as a subjective action, had first depicted everything thus and then projected it into the painting.” Releasing Heidegger from his own trap, while shaking a shameful finger in his direction, Shapiro contradicts the analysis of A Pair of Shoes within the essay, revealing Heidegger’s cognitive dissonance, making it clear that the very thing he claims we should not do, project a subjective action, he does. For it is not the peasant worker’s shoes as Heidegger claims, that are depicted in the painting, but they are in fact, due the tradition and nature of still life painting, those of the author, Van Gogh’s very own shoes. Even if this painting spoke, as Heidegger claims, placing him suddenly somewhere else other than where he would usually tend to be, in a place that may let us know that the shoes are in the painting’s truth, they are within a truth of Heidegger’s own projection. Shapiro came very close to short-circuiting Heidegger’s validating storyline, but it was Jacques Derrida who clarified the debate in his essay, Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [Pointure], from The Truth in Painting, of 1978, by noting how the Van Gogh painting is neither of a pair of shoes from the peasant worker apropos Heidegger, nor Van Gogh’s very own shoes vis-à-vis Shapiro, but, to be absolutely precise, they are simply the painted shoes, and nothing more.
Within a time frame of the past fifty years, the contemporary architecture scene has remained plagued by rhetoric in the same fictive vein as the toilsome one of Heidegger’s. Design rhetoric is fashionable—it has been projected in vain attempts to legitimate dubious design decisions—both within the architectural academies, and outside in the field of practice. From biomimetic behaviors of self-organizing agents, to search algorithms of optimized complex non-linear geometrical (and virtual!) constructs, design studios are increasingly falling victim to superfluous rhetoric to justify design intention in a body of work. As Derrida illuminated the fallacy of the respective arguments behind A Pair of Shoes, those from Heidegger and Shapiro, this essay seeks to reveal the fallacy of the validating design rhetoric to architectural projects, and alternatively, encourage our ability to refocus our intentions and our desires, on the end result, the built work.