Saturated Plasticity: Art and Nature


Schelling’s remarkable public lecture on the relationship between the plastic arts and Nature, first published in 1807 as Über das Verhältnis der bildenden Künste zu der Natur, was delivered in Munich in the Fall in celebration of King Maximilian I of Bavaria’s name day. The importance that Schelling attached to the speech is suggested by the fact that he included a version of it with six additional comments in the form of endnotes in the first and only volume of his 1809 Philosophische Schriften, placing it right before the first appearance of the Freiheitsschrift. This was no mere occasional speech in observance of Maximilian’s feast day, but a surprising kind of festival, an explosive kind of feast. Schelling, in his call for the “revival [Aufleben],” that is, coming back to life, “of a thoroughly indigenous art [einer durchaus eigentümlichen Kunst]” (I/7, 328), and “rejuvenated life [verjüngtes Leben]” (I/7, 328) and an “art that grows out of fresh seeds and from the root” (I/7, 326), and which, “like everything else living, originates in the first beginnings” (I/7, 324) and returns to that which in itself is “without image” [das Ungebildete]” (I/7, 324), that is, for art that returns to life by returning to the source of art’s life, marked this festival as a kind of carnival, that is, as a saturated progression of masks. In what follows, I will develop and defend my seemingly eccentric characterization of the address.

I begin by briefly reflecting on my decision, perhaps provocatively, to speak of this progression of masks as saturated. Why saturated? The latter term derives from Latin roots indicating a drenching, a filling up and satiating. Die Sättigung, with its root satt, to be full, clearly speaks to this satiation and in reference to chemistry, Schelling reflects in the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797, rev. 1803), for example, on the complete permeation of the alchemical menstruum, prime matter, and a superadded body. Without consummate and reciprocal saturation, either the menstruum attempts to dissolve the body or a dissolved body attracts a superadded body. Consummate satiation, the complete interpenetration of energy and form, allows for a perfect mixture, and nothing more can be added. This (al)chemical saturation in which the formless and form interpenetrate in Nature can also, Schelling tells us in the Munich speech, be detected in the germinating upsurge of the work of art, as if it were an unknown and unexpected plant: “the artwork rises up out of the depths of Nature, growing upwards with definiteness and delimitation, unfolding inner infinity and saturation [innere Unendlichkeit und Fülle], finally transforms itself into charm [Anmut] and in the end reaches soul” (I/7, 321). The speech is rife with images of living soil, animating ground, and productive earth, all of which oppose mere surface and land [Boden]. The seed of art takes its life from the depths of this earth, watered by inspiration. Or one could say that in art one finds the saturation of gravity and light, that is, of the dark, attractive depths of ground or “mysterious night” (I/6, 257) of gravity in its coupling with the expanding clarity of form as light. And although Schelling has “represented” or “imagined” (two possible senses of vorgestellt) this movement in its constituent and therefore “separated [getrennt]” parts, he insists that in “the act of creation” it is “a single deed” (I/7, 321), a unified progression. It happens of itself, beyond the activity of creating or the passivity of being created, in something like the middle voice of artistic productivity.

In art, the soul, the animating menstruum of Nature, the eternal beginning, or what Schelling in the Munich speech simply calls das Wesen, is saturated with form and form is saturated with the living energy of the soul. Although opposing form, there is no soul separate from form because although form delimits energy, it does so in order to give it life and expression. When one conceives form solely in abstract terms, that is, removed from the sensuous, it appears as if it constricts das Wesen because it is inimical (feindselig) to it, but form has no independent standing. If form is “only with and through das Wesen,” how could das Wesen feel restricted by what it creates (I/7, 303)? “The determinateness [Bestimmtheit] of form is never in Nature a negation, but rather always an affirmation” (I/7, 303). In his book on Francis Bacon, Deleuze makes this point in relationship to painting when he explicates Bacon’s critique of the action paintings of Jackson Pollock. “The diagram should not, therefore, engulf the entire painting; it should remain limited in space and time. It should remain operative and controlled. Violent means should not be unleashed, and the necessary catastrophe should not submerge everything” (199). Bacon’s assessment of Pollock can remain a subject of debate—Pollock understood himself to be a force of Nature—but the broader point can still hold: without saturation there is only kitsch (empty forms posing as art) or catastrophe, the dark night of the menstruum. Composition demands saturation and in this sense it cannot be separated from natura naturans, the productivity and creativity of Nature.

Saturated Plasticity: Art and Nature

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