August 2013

Mary Mann

nonfiction

The Pleasure in Drawing by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated by Philip Armstrong

There is a legend that Michelangelo was obsessed with drawing as a kid, but he always had to draw in secret because if he was caught he'd be scolded by his father: a boy shouldn't waste his time on doodles!

His doodles became a worthwhile pastime only in retrospect, put into context with the sculptures and paintings they inspired. Drawing has traditionally been the predecessor of greater things, the "birth of form," rather than its final resting place. "Early on," writes Jean-Luc Nancy, a French philosopher of art and culture, in The Pleasure in Drawing, "drawing took on, if not exactly the meaning, then the value associated with a sketch or a study."

Which is just fine, and, if I interpret the often slippery and somersaulting prose of Nancy correctly, it's even better than fine: this na´ve quality of drawing is what makes it so pleasurable. It is "an art quite a-part," a quotation that Nancy borrowed from Elaine Escoubas, including it in one of the "sketchbooks" -- small collections of unincorporated quotations -- that end each chapter of The Pleasure in Drawing. The book itself, small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, shares the loose, energetic, draft-like quality that Nancy attributes to drawings.

The energy that emanates from a drawing is a result of the pleasure the artist takes in drawing it -- a pleasure that the public then takes in viewing it. Pleasure! Nancy, like any good philosopher (and he is lauded as one of the best), balks at the word, and takes one hundred and twenty-eight pages to define "pleasure" in the context of art.

First he has to deal with our current understanding of the word "pleasure," which Nancy believed is vastly misunderstood. In Manhattan, Woody Allen's character makes a list of his pleasures, the things that "make life worth living": "Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Willie Mays and um, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong's recording of 'Potato Head Blues,' Swedish movies, naturally..." he goes on in that vein.

The list features items that provoke satisfaction and contentment; at best they might produce feelings of admiration and contemplation, the latter of which Nancy considers a pure pleasure because "contemplation does not consume what it contemplates." But this list does not encompass pleasure or even come close. "Pleasure is not simple or single."

Pleasure for the artist, Nancy argues, is "not the pleasure of completion but the pleasure of tension." This pleasure doesn't come from the outside -- it isn't a fancy meal or a beautiful song -- but rather from the tensions within the artist, and between the artist and the paper, the sketching and erasing and refining of the work to push it closer and closer to truth. "What is at stake each time is: how does the world form itself and how am I allowed to embrace its movement?" A lesson and validation for all artists -- sculptors, painters, poets, musicians: there is pure pleasure in work.

"I think only of the joy of seeing the sun rise once more and of being able to work a little bit," Nancy quotes Matisse, "even under difficult conditions."

If pleasure is tension then drawing is the most purely pleasurable stage of art. It is the first formation of an idea, and, though it involves a lot of work on the part of the artist, it also has the spontaneous "sense of a form that forms itself." The artist takes pencil to paper and sketches and doodles and frets and lets the hand have its way and when suddenly something true takes shape it feels like a magic trick. Good drawings -- partly because they were not originally intended for sale -- will retain the "emerging, innate (na´ve) character" of a child's drawing. "Beauty is the design of the true," writes Nancy, "its desire to burst open." A drawing -- in its innocent early aspiration towards truth -- is the expression, the act and fulfillment all at once, of this desire.

The Pleasure in Drawing by Jean-Luc Nancy, translated by Philip Armstrong
Fordham University Press
ISBN: 978-0823250936
128 pages