The double question of Black Square

black square

How does one talk about subjects, which, having long entered into all academic and non-academic phrase books, now had fallen into the category of rotten fruits which only the most indiscriminate thought or the one without grace of originality would use for its subsistence? To salvage them from the rancid repute of bad taste it would require nothing short of recreating them, discovering the hidden sources of their «thought-provoking» nature, setting them upon a new «epistemic basis»; in short, one would need to commend them to the care of a genius, or to the healing power of oblivion in the course of which those subjects might grow supple again and hence interesting to the spirit of the observer.

I write this merely as a disclaimer, in order to conjure away predictable accusations before tackling a subject about which too much for its own good was spoken and written — Malevich’s proverbial «Black Square». I began thinking about this despite myself — lest the injustice be done to it (for the umpteenth time) — upon hearing a colleague of mine decry it as а powerful indictment of the all-pervading vacuousness presently ascendant in the realm of aesthetics. Modern art as an offence to senses with Malevich listed among the founding and principal malefactors — how often have I heard such sentiments expressed in private conversations? Often enough to be riled into the stance of an unwitting champion of the art form, which, frankly, never moves me beyond a tea-stop of obligatory curiosity.

In regarding the «Black Square», I do not start with the aesthetics if by aesthetics one understands a type of Kantian appreciation of forms within the harmonious purposefulness of the universe. My point of departure is ‘purely’ intellectual, that is, I view the painting as a question made incarnate. Of course, the black square — now written in minuscule and freed of the quotation marks — epitomizes (as Malevich himself averred) the type of final and indivisible form of all representation, an atomic unit of artistic creation — of artistic Aufbau. Posed as such, it precedes and constitutes every piece of representational art known to us — from the cave paintings in Altamira to Mona Lisa and beyond. Malevich then steps out as a scientist, who complements the contemporary discovery (not creation) of quantum physics with quantum art, introducing the same tension between certainty of knowing and certainty of existence into realm of ‘beauty’. Shroedinger’s cat finds his cattery in the enveloping darkness of the Malevich’s box.

Without fully understanding what is in that box, one could see however how one could proceed from the «Square» upwards to the most sophisticated (and hence unique and practical) examples of artistic representation. This, however, is only one part of the square’s unappreciated charm. To recognize the other part, the square needs to be seen as a destination, rather than inception — the result of the indescribable journey from the non-being to being. Just as the smallest subatomic particle invites us to think about the nature of the preceding ‘non-material’ state, so does the Black Squire, turning its back on Titian and Monet, declaims the riddle of the entirely different kind, one, which attempts to discern the condition whence it, the square original and indivisible, emerged. That is essentially the question of all Being which comes to recognize its Opposite’s proximity and precedence over its own rights. It sows the doubt but gathers a paltry harvest, for, unable to think beyond itself, it conjures specters shaped in its own mold there, where there could be none.

Unless, of course, one refuses to think in questions and enters into the state of mediation which often borders on the ‘infinite.’ What happens if one decides to use the «Black Square» as an entry point to the domain fraught with ambiguous inscriptions — go backward thither, where you can’t see the path traversed and beyond, where the clock stops measuring your progress? Beyond and backward — into the representational weightlessness of absolute irreferentiality. There you might find the answer, but at the cost of barring forever the return to yourself and your own kind eager to hear about your adventures. The Grail remains inaccessible by making the seeker part of the prize sought-after.

The intellectual appreciation of the Malevich’s painting might lead one into the precipice beyond all being. Then, the seemingly glib refutation of its aesthetic worth might simply be the working of the healthy instinct designed to keep the viewer from wading foolhardily into the ontological Hades.
Photo credit: Micha Theiner

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