Despite the narrative of disharmony, which appears to underpin Baselitz’s work, Schiff detects in the paintings an ‘uncanny beauty’; he asks how this experience of beauty, in the context of ugliness, can be accounted for. His initial answer is to propose a dialectical relationship between the two. If the historical conditions and the way in which Baselitz’s paintings are made are evocative of disharmony; the unexpected sense of beauty must be evidence of its opposite, harmony.
Yet, as soon as this harmony/disharmony dialectic is proposed, it is discounted as irresolvable. He also feels the logical irony of the dialectic cannot account for the ‘sensory and emotional effects of Baselitz’s art’, a combination of irritation, at the way the paintings are constructed and satisfaction with the experience of the work. Therefore the experience of Baselitz’s paintings more closely matches our experience of the world and the things in it, than the experience provided by the word-driven analysis, which the dialectic relies on. Words are concepts of things, whereas pictures and the marks that construct them are closer to things, they are more like the thing, they have a ‘unique physical identity’. Baselitz’s ‘coarse marks’ on the canvas do not remind us of anything else – they are not like anything other than themselves and are therefore disharmonious. A more elegant, painterly mark would allow us to call to mind a universal idea of beauty and therefore be harmonious.
In this analysis Schiff distinguishes between words and the painted image, words are conceptual, whereas paintings, ‘… more like things than like concepts for things,’ have some of the attributes of the conceptual but more of the character of the thing in itself.
Yet underlying these differences is a seeming commonality of intention. Both the painted image of a thing and its conceptualization in words aim at a definition of their object of enquiry. The figurative painting does this through delineating the thing as it appears whereas logical definition is the ‘means by which a concept undergoes determination’ (Heidegger, BCAP, 9)
Definition, in the latter sense, is itself a concept, to understand the conceptual in the sense of definition one needs to go beyond the definition. This is possible through Kant, who discusses the relationship between our intuition and our concept of a thing. Our intuition of a thing, i.e. our immediate untheorised impression, is singular, peculiar to the thing and to us, whereas the concept we have of it is general and sharable. In this analysis what we encounter in intuition is the matter of a thing, that which it is, whereas its form i.e. what we take it to be for, is a more general understanding.
This thinking is reflected in Schiff’s account of Baselitz’s work and his own attempt to escape the strictures of the conceptual structure of words through a description of the painting Head Painting – Great Dane made with; ‘… black, grey and white dabs and smears, neither patterned or blended’. This aims at a non-logical definition of the painting, through an account of its surface properties, the matter of the painting. Yet by necessity it is constructed in words, which have been theorised as inherently conceptual, thus a seeming circularity is created.
Can we escape this circularity in order to arrive at the actuality of the work? Martin Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art advises rather than avoiding the circle we should follow it. Accepting this advice I propose to return to the idea of definition, defined as ‘genuine knowledge of the matter’ (ibid, 10), seeking to understand it in the painterly sense of the delineation of what is seen.