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Section Three | Arts

The Openness of Art. The Poetics of Art and Loss of Autonomy of Art

Polona Tratnik
p. 161-180


With the concept of the open work, Umberto Eco addressed the poetics to which art turned with modernism. In the article the author analyzes the notion of the open work, the references relevant to this concept and the relations of this concept to similar concepts introduced by other scholars such as Roland Barthes. Scholars discussing the openness of art were deriving primarily from Paul Valéry, and they distanced themselves from the myth of the artist as a genius and from the concept of art as a vehicle for communication to transmit the truth and instead emphasized the performative character of art. Art on this track aimed at poetic use of its own media. The author argues that Eco’s definition of the open work comprises different dimensions of openness, i.e. the semantic and formal openness of the works of art, as well as the notion addresses the perceptual openness of the world. The author examines how the concept of the openness of art placed stress on the relevance of interpretation instead of the author’s intention and how it was part of a broader debate on interpretation and weak thought. By establishing autonomous poetic situations and exploring the means of art, art began performing philosophical discussions about itself, wherein, as the author argues, the notion of the open work is linked to the notions of the end or the death of art and denotes the dissolution of art into philosophy. Other sorts of dissolution of art which mean the death of art regard the dissolution of art into culture in a broader sense and its subordination to propagandist or political goals, which means art loses its autonomy. Finally, the author questions participatory art as a potential contemporary successor of the open work and argues that this mode of art, though it actively involves the participant, remains semantically closed.

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  • 1 Valéry 1958b: 59.
  • 2 Ibidem: 71.
  • 3 Ibidem: 72.

1The notion of “the open work” refers to the structure and communication of a modernist work of art in which the work of art is no longer about something that exists outside of it. The open art work does not use media in a utilitarian fashion, but establishes an autonomous art structure. The open work is essentially poetic. Paul Valéry elaborated upon an analogy on the difference between walking and dancing and the difference between prose and poetry in order to explain that poetry is not about transmitting definite meanings, but «Poetry is an art of Language».1 Poetry establishes a poetic universe and is performative. Walking, according to Valéry, has a prescribed direction and speed and, above all, has a definite end. Dance is a system of actions whose end is in themselves. Dance is different from utilitarian movements. «When the man who is walking has reached his goal /…/ this possession at once entirely annuls his whole act; the effect swallows up the cause, the end absorbs the means; and, whatever the act, only the result remains».2 It is the same with utilitarian language – the language I use to express my design, my desire, my opinion, my command, continues Valéry, evaporates almost as it is heard. It transforms into something else, it is replaced by its meaning. And speech no longer exists. «The poem», on the contrary, «does not die for having lived: it is expressly designed to be born again from its ashes and to become endlessly what it has just been».3 As discussed in this article, philosophers, deriving from Valéry, distanced themselves from the myth of the artist as a genius and put emphasis on the performative character of art. What art does to the receiver has become more relevant than why it was produced in the first place. The discussion on the open work was therefore part of a broader debate on interpretation which was linked to the philosophy of weak thought and postmodernism. In addition, Umberto Eco considered that poetry and autonomous art in general – by establishing autonomous poetic situations, exploring the means of art, working with rhythm more than with meaning – has become essentially about itself, so that art executes the philosophical discussion on what makes it art. In this regard, the concept of the open work is linked to the debate on the end or the death of art.

2I reconsider the poetics of the open work and different dimensions of its openness, as addressed by Umberto Eco, and compare his concept of the open work to a similar consideration on the modernist text by Roland Barthes. Furthermore, I question the open work as regards the considerations on the end of art: the open work might, in this sense, be connected to the dissolution of art into philosophy. Another sort of dissolution of art that means its death regards its dissolution into culture in a broader sense or its subordination to propagandist or political goals, which means art is losing its autonomy. Finally, I question the contemporary mode of participatory art as a potential contemporary successor to the open work. I argue that participatory art does not present an open structure which offers creative potential to the participant, but a structure rather closed with its semantic dimensions.

The Semantic and Formal Openness of Art

3With the concept of the open work, Umberto Eco addressed the modernist character of art, which was much different compared to the traditional one. Modernist art disregarded the external references, it refused to report on the world out there, and instead, it founded its mode of operation in the autonomy of the medium. Modernist works of art were opening up ways of seeing, perceiving and composing realities. At the same time they explored the very features of the medium in which it operated.

  • 4 Eco 1984: VII.

4In 1962 Eco published an important work on the philosophy of art, Opera aperta, in which he presented his theory on the open work. The English translation appeared much later (1989) and is not just a translation. It comprises some later writings as well (relevant for this discussion is the essay “Two Hypotheses about the Death of Art”, from La definzione dell’arte, 1968). The English speaking public has come to know his theory on the open work not only from The Open Work, but from his previous publication, The Role of the Reader (1979), which included the main essay on this theory, “The Poetics of the Open Work”, which was actually written much earlier in 1959.4

  • 5 Heidegger 1993: 144.
  • 6 Valéry 1958a: 152.
  • 7 Valéry 1958b: 68.
  • 8 Eco 1984: VII.
  • 9 Ibidem: 4.

5The openness of the work of art is above all structural and refers to the work itself. The use of the term work was already archaic at the time Eco used it. Martin Heidegger, in a 1935 lecture in Freiburg on “The Origin of the Work of Art” considered art as «inferable from the work»5 and deliberated on the thingly character of the work of art, wherein it is exactly the work invested that differentiates the work of art as an artificial or artistic work from a natural thing. Valéry, in reference to his 1922 poem “Graveyard by the Sea”,6 as well as in his 1939 Zaharoff lecture on “Poetry and Abstract Thought”7 used the term text to explicitly denote the sort of structure of modernist art with characteristic differences compared to a traditional form of art, as Eco addressed with the notion of open work. Eco noted that he discussed this semiotic phenomenon in the mode of categorical polarity (open vs. closed) before he fully developed his semiotic approach.8 In the book The Role of the Reader he used the term text to denote the open text.9

  • 10 Ibidem: VII.
  • 11 Eco 1989: 5.
  • 12 Eco 1984: 3.
  • 13 Ibidem: 4.

6The work of art or the text is open – this structural phenomenon interested Eco, however, the question of the openness of art actually speaks about the relevance of the reader. In 1979 Eco was well aware of the dominance of the problem of the reader in interpreting texts that he was interested in at the time,10 but also already in the “The Poetics of the Open Work”: «The reader of the text knows that every sentence and every trope is ‘open’ to a multiplicity of meanings which he must hunt for and find».11 The idea of the openness of the work to interpretation was perceived as heretical in the structuralistically oriented milieu of that time, noted Eco: «the idea of taking into account the role of the addressee looked like a disturbing intrusion, disquietingly jeopardizing the notion of a semiotic texture to be analyzed in itself and for the sake of itself».12 The esteemed French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted in an interview with Paolo Caruso (“Paese sera-Libri”, January 20, 1967) that he could not accept the perspective of the open work; he and Roman Jakobson made a structural analysis of a Baudelaire sonnet and they «did not approach it as an ‘open work’» in which they «could find everything that has been filled in by the following epochs,» they «approached it as an object which, once created, had its stillness – so to speak – of a crystal».13

  • 14 Eco 2007: 39.
  • 15 Robey 1989: VII.

7Eco himself admitted that he was immediately fascinated with the opening of an infinite number of possible interpretations right after his initial study on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, so much so that he even wrote a book entitled The Open Work, «which celebrates the activity of the interpreter as fundamental to the life of a work of art».14 The exemplary «unlimited» work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), wherein, there are different notions of openness which interested Eco. As David Robey noted, in Wake it is the semantic content that is open, while in Mallarmé’s Livre it is the material form.15 The formal dimension of openness is to be found in its most extreme form in what Eco called a «work in movement», in cases of the music of Stockhausen, Berio and Pousseur, Calder’s mobiles, and Mallarmé’s Livre. «Work in movement» is not a static artifact, but has a liquid or moving character. It does not have one definite order, but many possible orders. For its liquid or moving character, the open work is not a fixed, single perspective picture of something. The changing character of art stresses the point that art no longer assures static reports on the truth.

The Modern Universe and Perceptual Openness

  • 16 Eco 1989: 13.

8The concept of the open work undermines the ideology of objective representation of truth in art and is a critique of objective metaphysics. This stance is accordant with the changed view on the world, as expressed in philosophy by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of Euclidian perspectivalism. Eco was aware of the fact that art reflects contemporary views on the world: «In every century, the way that artistic forms are structured reflects the way in which science or contemporary culture views reality». The closed, single conception presented by a medieval artist reflected the conception of the cosmos as a hierarchy of fixed, preordained order.16 The openness that he noticed in modernist art presents the cultural striving to unfold new vistas.

  • 17 Eco 1989: 14.

Mallarme’s projects for a multidimensional, deconstructible book envisaged the breaking down of the initial unit into sections which could be reformulated and which could express new perspectives by being deconstructed into correspondingly smaller units which are also mobile and reducible. This project obviously suggests the universe as it is conceived by modern, non-Euclidean geometries.17

9Merleau-Ponty emphasized the relevance of perception in the comprehension of the world:

  • 18 Merleau-Ponty 2005: 384.

The perceiving body does not successively occupy different points of view beneath the gaze of some unlocated consciousness which is thinking about them. For it is the reflection which objectifies points of view of perspectives, whereas when I perceive, I belong, through my point of view, to the world as a whole.18

10As regards examples from the world of art to demonstrate the phenomenology of perception, Merleau-Ponty is most interested in painting, since the painter is involved in painting with his body, which relevantly emphasizes the special and bodily dimensions of perception.

  • 19 Merleau-Ponty 1993: 138.

Space is not what it was in the Dioptrics, a network of relations between objects such as would be seen by a third party, witnessing my vision, or by a geometer looking over it and reconstructing it from outside. It is, rather, a space reckoned starting from me as the null point or degree zero of spatiality. I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is around me, not in front of me.19

  • 20 Eco 1989: 16.
  • 21 Ibidem: 17.
  • 22 Merleau-Ponty 2005: 385.

11Eco referred to the modern psychology and phenomenology and their notion of «perceptive ambiguities» – although he found it a problematic notion. Perspective ambiguities allow «the observer to conceive the world in a fresh dynamics of potentiality before the fixative process of habit and familiarity comes into play», as Eco in this regard recalled Edmund Husserl.20 The concept of the open work actually embodies Merleau-Ponty’s reconsiderations on the visual and relevance of perception with substantiality of the principle of ambiguity of the phenomena as perceived by the spectator, as well as with the emphasis on the movement and incompleteness of various phenomena and processes. Eco found the notion of the openness in Merleau-Ponty,21 when he acknowledged the incompleteness of the world and things perceived: «How can any thing ever really and truly present itself to us, since its synthesis is never a completed process, and since I can always expect to see it break down and fall to the status of a mere illusion»?22

  • 23 See for instance the following accounts. Paisley Livingston distinguishes between genetic and aesth (...)

12Merleau-Ponty has contributed not only the awareness that perception does not take place by a disembodied consciousness in some place distant from flesh called mind, but also he significantly emphasized the dynamics of the world and of perception, according to which a constant process of perceiving is taking place, which makes perceptual synthesis ultimately an open process. Taking this account literally means a work of art cannot be completed. An aspect of the notion of the open work is its incompleteness, which is itself an issue, related to those of intention and interpretation. The questions regarding interpretation were thoroughly debated in continental (German, French, and Italian) philosophy in the second half of the 20th century and will be addressed in the continuation of the article. They still echo today in philosophical strivings to overcome the setting that gives too much freedom to interpretation with requirements for a «new realism». Since 2005 the debate on intention and artistic creation has strengthened in analytical and pragmatist aesthetics, but the scholars who address these issues in this framework render the authority of the author and the notion of completeness of the work of art in a manner that sounds rather naïve if one considers the rich findings on these issues delivered by philosophers such as Hans Georg Gadamer, Gianni Vattimo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Umberto Eco, but which are surprisingly completely ignored in these accounts.23

The Issues with Truth and Intention

  • 24 Heidegger 1993: 199.
  • 25 Ibidem: 183.
  • 26 Valéry 1958a: 152.
  • 27 Eco 1989: 9
  • 28 Valéry 1958a: 152.

13The objective of the open work is not to transmit the truth. For Heidegger, on the contrary, art was «the setting-into-work of truth», the essence of art was «the founding of truth».24 The work of art was for him, accordingly, essentially linked to the process of creation. Creation is «bringing forth», therefore, the work has its «createdness».25 The open work is to be comprehended quite on to the contrary. Paul Valéry declared: «there is no true meaning to a text – no author’s authority».26 Eco referred to Valéry on this point,27 yet he did not completely disregard the author, as we will soon see. The view of Roland Barthes, who, in a short essay (“The Death of the Author”, 1968), discussed the same phenomena in art, is closer to that of Valéry. Valéry compared the text with an apparatus that an interpreter can almost freely use: «Once published, a text is like an apparatus that anyone may use as he will and according to his ability: it is not certain that the one who constructed it can use it better than another».28 Barthes differentiated between the two notions – the work and the text – in order to describe the differences between the traditional and the modernist mode of art. The work, according to Barthes, is a structurally closed entity, delivered by the Author, who creates the work. The idea of the work is linked to the idea of creation; its creator has a God-like status. The text, on the contrary, has an open structure. The difference between the two lay in the diachronic or synchronic conceptualization of the two structures. The diachronic nature of the work follows a single line divided into before and after, which is present in the narration, but also in the production of the work, as the Author precedes his work as the father precedes his son. The synchronic nature of the textual structure is just the opposite, it means the here and now, the current moment of production. Text is performative.

  • 29 Barthes 1977: 146.
  • 30 Ibidem.
  • 31 Ibidem: 147.
  • 32 Ibidem: 148.
  • 33 Eco 1989: 19.

14According to Barthes, «a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash».29 The text is semantically open. In addition, it does not have the origin in its Author. The writer, as Barthes called the producer of the text, is only a mediator. «The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture».30 With ascribing the text to an Author the text is closed: «Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing».31 This is a strictly structuralist stance opposing the diachronic axe of the process of production, which also comes with a criticism of the author’s intentions. The text, Barthes believed, closes if it is fixed to the Author and his intentions, therefore he demanded «the death of the Author» in order to get the real openness of the text, which is «made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation» – a self-contradictive network of references and semiotic relations – «but there is tane place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but it its destination».32 Barthes speaks about unity, Eco about completeness: the open work is rendered complete with the reader, «the author offers the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed».33

  • 34 Barthes 1977: 148.
  • 35 Eco 1989: 11.

15Barthes however strictly protested against the relevance of the historical axe that would condition the reading, instead offered a rather vague, but very structuralist, synchronic definition of the reader: «Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted».34 For Eco, the reader is quite the opposite: «Indeed, according to how he feels at one particular moment, the reader might choose a possible interpretative key which strikes him as exemplary of this spiritual state».35

  • 36 Valéry 1958a: 152.
  • 37 Derrida 1992: 5.
  • 38 Ibidem: 9.

16Valéry also believed the author’s intentions are irrelevant or can even be disturbing for the perception of the art he produces: «Whatever he may have wanted to say, he has written what he has written».36 Jacques Derrida, addressing the medium of writing, emphasized that in this mode of communication the receiver is absent, but also the mark the sender produces, «cuts itself off from him and continues to produce effects independently of his presence and of the present actuality of his intentions».37 Text is cut from the context of its origin, from «the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. /…/ This allegedly real context includes a certain ‘present’ of the inscription, the presence of the writer /…/ and above all the intention, the wanting-to-say-what-he-means, which animates his inscription at a given moment».38 The intention might be very relevant for the author and for the production of the text, yet the text is a tissue of marks that exists independently of the context of its origin.

  • 39 Eco 1989: 19.
  • 40 Ibidem: 15.
  • 41 Robey 1989: XII.
  • 42 Eco 2007: 39.
  • 43 Ibidem.

17Eco, however, differently from Barthes and Derrida, did not transfer the relevance from the author to the receiver so that he would refuse the relevance of the author’s intention. There is a plurality of interpretations available to the performer of a musical open work or the reader, but there is no chaos in the internal relations; that into which the performer is invited to intervene, «always remains the world intended by the author».39 Eco, although saying the work completes with the interpreter, was recognizing one of the crucial characteristics of the open work in its openness to incompleteness. This character reflects not only the phenomenological findings as claimed by Merleau-Ponty, but as well the ascertainment in physics that «an incomplete knowledge of the system is in fact an essential feature in its formulation».40 Robey enlightened the persisting influence of Luigi Pareyson and his aesthetics of «formativity», from which Eco takes over the concept of «organic form». Eco’s requirement for the open work is to be of a «controlled disorder» or to be an «organic fusion of multiple elements», which means the open work is not freely produced. Additionally, «the interpretation of the modern open work is far from entirely free: a formative intention is manifest in every work, and this intention must be a determining factor in the interpretive process».41 Eco himself later explained that he used the oxymoron «the open work», on purpose. «That which opened itself was nevertheless a work and thus a form, something that was already there before one began to interpret it».42 He continued to say that he developed the aesthetics from his master, Luigi Pareyson, «which was based on a continual dialectic between the legality of a form and the initiative of its interpretations, between freedom and fidelity».43

The Relevance of Interpretation

  • 44 Gadamer 2006: 82.
  • 45 Ibidem: 81.
  • 46 Gadamer 2006: 82.
  • 47 Ibidem: 85.

18In his profound 1960 hermeneutic analysis (Truth and Method), Hans Georg Gadamer found the eighteenth-century cult of genius and the sacralization of art characteristic of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century. Therefore, in modernism, the concept of genius was conceived from the point of view of the observer. Gadamer was critical towards the transference of the authority of creation from the point of the author to the point of the reader and interpreter, because «genius in understanding is, in fact, of no more help than genius in creation».44 This shift, from the author to the interpreter, is fundamentally linked to the question of completeness of the work of art. If the work of art is not completed by the author and the correct interpretation set by him, «how is one to conceive of the criterion for measuring the completeness of a work of art»?45 Valéry, Gadamer ascertained, «did not work out the consequence that followed for someone who encounters a work of art and endeavors to understand it. If it is true that a work of art is not, in itself, completable, what is the criterion for appropriate reception and understanding»?46 Gadamer’s assertion on this issue is that the reader inscribes in the text, so that there is always a-text-for-the-reader. There is no text-per-se, instead, there is an event: «all encounter with the language of art is an encounter with an unfinished event and is itself part of this event».47 The notion of event emphasizes the moment of reading when the text actually happens; taken more broadly, emphasizing the event instead of the statics of the artifact opens up the possibility of thinking of art as something that happens to somebody and not as something that exists as an artifact independently of the observer.

  • 48 «The aesthetic object is not constituted in the aesthetic experience of grasping it, but the work o (...)
  • 49 Zabala 2007: 5.
  • 50 Vattimo 1988: 173.
  • 51 Eco 2007: 42.
  • 52 Rosso 1990: 86.
  • 53 Zabala 2007: 20.
  • 54 Eco 2007: 51.
  • 55 Ibidem.
  • 56 Eco 1984: 7-11.
  • 57 Di Martino 2012: 189.

19Gadamer actually knew Pareyson’s Theory of Formativity (1954) and agreed with it.48 Eco studied with Pareyson and eventually became his assistant. During their years of study, a long friendship began between Eco and Gianni Vattimo.49 The concept of the open work can be understood in the framework of what Vattimo called weak thought, in which metaphysical power weakens. In his thesis on the end of modernity, Vattimo stressed, reading Heidegger’s nihilism, that postmodernity is, in relation to modernity, not in the state of überwindung (the notion often used by Heidegger), which would mean a sort of overcoming, but of Verwindung, which denotes a twist, but also a convalescence and resignation (Ger. verwunden means to hurt) – while Heidegger seldom used this term, it semantically links with Nietzsche’s understanding of the ‘philosophy of mourning’.50 Eco himself noted that some readers had enlisted him among the theorists of weak thought.51 He did not, however, completely agree with that. Similarly, Stefano Rosso noted that Eco had been linked to the philosophy of weak thought or, more generally, of postmodernism, while Rosso was rather prudent in claiming that «some tendencies which we could call ‘postmodern’ /…/ or even ‘weak’ often emerge in Eco’s text» [In the Name of the Rose].52 The connections and diversions between Eco’s theory of interpretation and weak thought and postmodernism were addressed by Eco himself and were studied in detail by Loredana Di Martino. Vattimo argued in his lectures at the University of Bologna (given upon Eco’s invitation) and later published in Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy (1994) that «philosophers used to think they were able to describe the world, but now the moment has arrived to interpret it», as formulated by Santiago Zabala.53 Everybody agreed on the relevance of interpretation for epistemology and hermeneutics, Eco wrote: «The world as we represent it to ourselves is an effect of interpretation»,54 yet, Eco conceded, the problem remains, what criterion to use to distinguish between «dream, poetic intervention, and an ‘acid trip’ /…/ and acceptable statements about the things».55 Eco addressed the issue of free interpretation in several writings. Already in the 1980s Eco developed a concept of a «model reader», which is structurally inherent to every text and which limits interpretation,56 yet, as Di Martino claims in her 2012 article, «while Eco’s recent theory of ‘negative realism’ further distances the author from the philosophy of weak thought, it does not argue /…/ for an overcoming of postmodernism».57

  • 58 Ferraris 2014: 3.
  • 59 Ibidem: XV.

20In 2012 Maurizio Ferraris, Gianni Vattimo’s student and coauthor of Jacques Derrida, published a book Manifesto del nuovo realismo (2012), in which he calls for a return to realism and presents a theory of «new realism», which aims to overcome the issues of weak thought. Ferraris abandons the relativist position as defended by postmodernists and grounds his position in the critical reflection upon the outcomes of postmodernism. He believes that «new realism» means a turn, marked with social events that postmodernists did not count on: the post-9/11 wars and media populism which showed that Nietzsche’s claim upon which postmodernism rests, that there are no facts, only interpretations, has turned to the fact that «the argument of the strongest is always the best».58 Ferraris believed the two dogmas of postmodernism were accordingly severely denied: «that all reality is socially constructed and infinitely manipulable, and that truth is a useless notion because solidarity is more important than objectivity».59

The Death of Art: Dissolution of Art into Philosophy

  • 60 Jakobson 1985: 153.
  • 61 Eco 1989: 169.
  • 62 Ibidem.
  • 63 Ibidem.
  • 64 Ibidem: 171.
  • 65 Ibidem.
  • 66 Ibidem: 172.
  • 67 Vattimo 1988: 52.

21In his theory on communication functions of language, which was relevant for Eco (The Role of the Reader), Roman Jakobson wrote this ascertainment about poetic function: «This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects».60 This feature distances art from external reality and sets grounds for constructing reality by art itself. Therefore, modernist art founded its autonomy in the poetic use of artistic medium. The poetics of the open work of art are, in this regard, linked with its conceptual self-referentiality. The acknowledgement of this link is to be found in Eco’s writing: «in modern art, from Romanticism to our day, poetics has not been considered only as a project aiming at the production of an artistic object (and, as such, destined to disappear once the object has been realized). On the contrary, it has become art’s main subject matter, its theme, its raison d’être».61 Another feature is added to the open works of art: «Works of art have become treatises on art».62 In the essay on the death of art, Eco paid attention to the modernist works of art that show a character of ontological philosophy. Mallarmé wrote poetry to discuss the possibility of writing poetry, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is its own poetics, a cubist painting is a discourse about the possibilities of a new pictorial space.63 The level of rationalization has increased, Eco observed: «aesthetic pleasure has gradually changed from emotional and intuitive reaction it once was to a much more intellectual sort of appreciation».64 Still more, Eco recognized that the «intensely self-analytical trend /…/ can certainly be seen as a sign of the decline of art – more than that, of a concrete example of its death».65 Should this phenomenon be taken «as a facile Hegelianism, implying the dissolution of art into philosophy»?66 The connection of the self-analytical trend of art with the concept of the open work establishes a link of the open work with the debate on the end of art, which was particularly strong in the 1980s, and which corresponded to the postmodernist debate on the end of «grand narratives» (as announced by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, 1979). Accoding to Vattimo, the end of art is one of the notions which constitute the era in which metaphysics is ending.67

  • 68 Danto 1984: 28.
  • 69 Danto 1998: 134.

22The prominent scholar in the debate on the end of art was Arthur C. Danto, who originated from analytical aesthetics, but who made a turn to Hegel by addressing the subject first in his essay “The End of Art” (1984). He referred to a notion of a «cognitive progress, where it is understood that art progressively approaches that kind of cognition. /…/ History ends with the advent of self-consciousness, or better, self-knowledge. /…/ Art ends with the advent of its own philosophy».68 Art had become a kind of philosophy in action. It concerned itself with the ultimate ontological question, which is: why am I a work of art? Then art had to hand over the philosophical task to philosophy. Danto linked the assertion on the end of art to the end of history, wherein he claimed that for post-historical art no direction is obligatory, therefore any account is equally legitimate: «there was no internal historical direction for art, and this is precisely what the condition of pluralism amounts to».69

  • 70 Eco 1989: 174.

23With the notion «the death of art» Eco addressed the increased level of self-analytics in modernist art, yet he did not anticipate the plurality of modes of art without their historical relevance such as Danto did. Danto discussed the end of art as the end of a progressive practice. For Danto, art still exists in the post-historical age, it just does not have historical relevance. His theory announced the break between modernity and postmodernity, as modernity trusted in progress, while postmodernity did not. The notion «the death of art» has a slightly different connotation. It denotes the extinguishing of art as established in modernity, which means first of all the extinguishing of its autonomy. This corresponds with Eco’s anticipation of the loss of artistic autonomy and a strong, fundamental or even existential connectedness of art with something else outside of art. According to Eco, one aspect of the death of art that means the loss of artistic autonomy is that art serves as a pretext for philosophy or that it has become philosophy itself, a philosophical-scientific reflection. Another aspect of the death of art is that art begins to serve propagandistic, political interests. These two sorts of heteronomy are reciprocally exclusive, and they have happened before, Eco noted, in the same historical context.70

  • 71 Vattimo 1988: 56.

24In 1985 Vattimo discussed the death of art and referred to the loss of art’s autonomy and the spreading of art outside of the world of art. Vattimo noticed the intrusion of the non-artistic elements into the world of art. In his view «the death of art signifies two things: in a strong – and utopian – sense, it indicates the end of art as a specific fact, separate from the rest of experience, thanks to the renewal and reintegration of existence; in a weak – or real – sense, it points to aestheticization as an extension of the domain of the mass media».71

The Loss of Autonomy of Art

  • 72 Eco 1989: 23.

25In the closing paragraphs of the essay “The Poetics of the Open Work” Eco implied that the openness of art is a feature that leads to «a new chapter in the history of art», it «organizes new communicative situations», it «opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy», «it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art».72 It seems that the increase in the interaction and participation in art since the 1990s has aptly demonstrated this announcement.

  • 73 Bourriaud 2002: 8, 11.
  • 74 Ibidem: 18.

26The assertion that in the world of art, social encounters matter most, that is more than the individuals who compose them and more than the works of art alone, delivered by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud (Relational Aesthetics, 1998), echoed quite intensively in the art scene. Bourriaud argued that the new is no longer a criterion, but artistic activity is a game where the liveliest factor «has to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts».73 Being himself actively involved in the world of art, he, based on the findings of his own observations, put stress on the relevance of communication between people within the world of art for the concept of art and the world of art, as well as on other sorts of social relations that concern art, such as activities within art projects and all sorts of being-together that have to do with art in any way, and also relations of art to social issues and issues of everyday life. Establishing that social relations are highly relevant for the world of art and for art, he came to a conclusion: «Art is a state of encounter».74

  • 75 Bishop 2006: 12

27The emphasis on relations introduced by Bourriaud that mirrored what was going on in the world of art, has also interested the British art historian Claire Bishop, who edited a book Participation (2006) along with an exhibition with the same title in the Whitechapel gallery in London. Bishop, who has detected a participatory impulse in art from the 1960s on, stressed the relevance of the social dimension of participation and defined the precursors for participatory art in the 1920s Dadaist cabaret move to the streets, the Soviet mass spectacles and partly Brecht theatre plays as well as Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. She defined the conceptual grounds for the topic, which in addition to Bourriaud’s relational theory, also rely on the early work of Walter Benjamin in his call for art to actively intervene and allow viewers to be involved in the process of production, Guy Debord’s demand for emancipated subjects of participation who will be able to determine their own social and political reality.75 In addition, Bishop defined the theoretical framework for the topic, from which to consider participation – here the main references are Eco’s and Barthes’s essays: “The Poetics of the Open Work” and “The Death of the Author”.

  • 76 Ibidem: 10.
  • 77 Bishop 2012: 11.

28Bishop, who has been interested in the social turn and less so in the increased interactivity that has taken place with the explosion of new technologies and the breakdown of medium-specific art, has studied cases of art projects that appropriate social forms as a way to bring art closer to everyday life.76 The objective she has followed is to move spectators out of the role of passive observers into the role of the producers (“Viewers as Producers” is the title of her introduction). In her later publication, she intensified the political dimension of the art she has been interested in and wrote: «artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps – however small – to repair the social bond».77

  • 78 Rancière 2009a.
  • 79 Rancière 2009b: 32.
  • 80 Rancière 2010: 37.
  • 81 Ibidem: 36.

29This appeal for art to act politically takes charge of participatory art to contribute to social emancipation. This links Bishop’s concepts to Jacques Rancière’s considerations on the emancipated spectator, wherein, for Rancière, emancipation should be the presupposition of equality, therefore we should abandon the binary active/passive that maintains the differentiation of those with capacity on the one side and those with incapacity on the other. The emancipated spectator is one who should have the engaged role of an interpreter.78 If the aesthetic regime of the arts as defined by Rancière is essentially the regime of modernity, the regime that initially meant the breakdown of the system of representation,79 wherein the aesthetic efficiency meant an efficiency to behold any direct relation between the production of art forms and the production of certain effect on a certain public,80 then participatory art with its social engagement presents another model of art which tends to abolish itself, which tends to turn the spectator into an active participant, an art performance that leads art outside museums and transforms it into a street event or abolishes the separation between art and life in the museum. This model, which has been among us for a while, corresponds to the ethical regime of art.81 These two regimes present a tension between autonomy of art and its heteronomy, which means the blurring of art and life.

  • 82 Eco 1989: 11.

30Speaking in terms of the open work as discussed by Eco, participatory art has a sort of openness that corresponds to formal openness. Eco himself discussed the openness of Brecht’s plays – a solution is desirable and also actually anticipated, but it must come from the collective enterprise of the audience. «In this case the ‘openness’ is converted into an instrument of revolutionary pedagogics».82 There is similar sort of openness at work in the contemporary trend of participatory art. Participatory art might be considered an open form of art since what happens within a project depends on the participant. However, the question remains whether the participant truly contributes to the outcome differently than in the way predicted by the artist. The role played by the participant in a participatory event is necessarily planned by the designer of the project and is in such a manner «written in the screenplay», although vaguely; it is limiting or directing the «player». The discourse is set in advance and even the voices are anticipated; if they are to present different ideological viewpoints, they are possibly anticipated as categories. The participant is, in that case, no individual, but a pre-planned representative of a category. The participant is not free to produce whatever he or she likes but is invited to take part in something that is arranged as a closed situation, similar to political voting.

  • 83 Žižek 2008: 217.

31Bishop believes that participatory art is taking on a political charge and involves the participants in art projects to take an active part in the community, where we live together. Not only has art moved out of its autonomous domain to the province of social or political services, but the assumed social or political participation of the participants and that kind of art is questionable. Slavoj Žižek referred to the increase of participatory activities in general, placed stress on a quite contrary effect to the one endorsed by Bishop, namely an effect of pseudoactivity. There is an urge to be active, to participate, to mask the nothingness of what goes on in the contemporary world, Žižek argues. People intervene all the time, academics participate in meaningless debates; today it is difficult to step back, to withdraw. «Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in “dialogue”, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken».83 From this critical perspective, the participation in making a social change through participatory art is something of an illusion.

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Bacharach, S., Tollefsen, D. 2015, You Complete Me: Posthumous Works and Secondary Agency, “Journal of Aesthetic Education”, 49, 4: 71-86.

Barthes, R. 1977, Image Music Text, London, Fontana Press.

Bishop, C. 2006, Participation, London - Cambridge (MA), Whitechapel and The Mit Press.

Bishop, C. 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London, New York, Verso.

Bourriaud, N. 2002, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, Les Presses Du Reel.

Danto, A.C. 1984, The End of Art, in B. Lang (ed.), The Death of Art, New York, Haven Publications.

Danto, A.C. 1998, The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense, “History and Theory”, Theme Issue 37: Danto and His Critics: Art History, Historiography and After the End of Art, 4: 127-143.

Derrida, J. 1992, Limited Inc, Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Di Martino, L. 2012, Between ‘New Realism’ and ‘Weak Thought’: Umberto Eco’s ‘Negative Realism’ and the Discourse of Late Postmodern Impegno, “Quaderni d’italianistica”, XXXIII, 2: 189-218.

Eco, U. 1984, The Role of the Reader, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Eco, U. 1989, The Open Work, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

Eco, U. 2007, Weak Thought and the Limits of Interpretation, in S. Zabala (ed.), WeakeningPhilosophy. Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo, McGill-Queen’s University Press: 37-56.

Ferraris, M. 2014, Manifesto of New Realism, New York, Suny Press.

Gadamer, H.G. 2006, Truth and Method, New York - London, Continuum.

Heidegger, M. 1993, The Origin of the Work of Art, Id., Basic Writings, San Francisco, Harper: 139-212.

Irvin, S. 2005, The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 63, 4: 315-326.

Jakobson, R. 2010, Linguistics and Poetics, in Id., Selected Writings. Volume III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry, Berlin-Boston, De Gruyter Mouton.

Livingston, P. 2005, Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1993, Eye and Mind, in G.A. Johnson, M.B. Smith (eds), The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 2005, Phenomenology of Perception, London - New York, Routledge.

Rancière, J. 2009a, The Emancipated Spectator, London - New York, Verso.

Rancière, J. 2009b, The Politics of Aesthetics, London - New York, Continuum.

Rancière, J. 2010, Paradoks politične umetnosti, in Emancipirani gledalec, Ljubljana, Maska.

Robey, D. 1989, Introduction, in U. Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge (MA), Harvard UniversityPress.

Rosso, S. 1990, Postmodern Italy: Notes on the ‘Crisis of Reason’, ‘Weak Thought’, and ‘The Name of the Rose’, in M. Calinescu, D. Fokkema (eds), Exploring Postmodernism. Selected papers presented at a Workshop on Postmodernism at the XIth International Comparative Literature Congress, Paris, 20-24 August 1985, Amsterdam - Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Valéry, P. 1958a, Concerning ‘Le Cimetière Marin, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry. Volume 7: The Art of Poetry, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Valéry, P. 1958b, Poetry and Abstract Thought, in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry. Volume 7: The Art of Poetry, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Vattimo, G. 1988, The End of Modernity. Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture, Cambridge-Oxford, Polity Press.

Zabala, S. 2007, Introduction: Gianni Vattimo and Weak Philosophy, in S. Zabala (ed.), Weakening Philosophy. Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo, McGill-Queen’s University Press: 2-34.

Žižek, S. 2008, Violence, New York, Picador.

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1 Valéry 1958b: 59.

2 Ibidem: 71.

3 Ibidem: 72.

4 Eco 1984: VII.

5 Heidegger 1993: 144.

6 Valéry 1958a: 152.

7 Valéry 1958b: 68.

8 Eco 1984: VII.

9 Ibidem: 4.

10 Ibidem: VII.

11 Eco 1989: 5.

12 Eco 1984: 3.

13 Ibidem: 4.

14 Eco 2007: 39.

15 Robey 1989: VII.

16 Eco 1989: 13.

17 Eco 1989: 14.

18 Merleau-Ponty 2005: 384.

19 Merleau-Ponty 1993: 138.

20 Eco 1989: 16.

21 Ibidem: 17.

22 Merleau-Ponty 2005: 385.

23 See for instance the following accounts. Paisley Livingston distinguishes between genetic and aesthetic completion. He defines aesthetic completion as «the possession of all of the essential or characteristic elements of the genre or form, and so on», while «a work is genetically complete only if its maker or makers decide it is so» (Livingston 2005: 54-55). In “The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art” (2005) Sherri Irvin argues for the artist’s sanction for the reception of contemporary art: «the artist’s sanction can fix features of the work» (Irvin 2005: 316). Irvin suggests «we examine the artist’s publically accessible actions and communications, the contexts in which they were delivered, and the conventions operative in those contexts to determine what the artist has sanctioned» (Irvin 2005: 315). Such understanding is aligned with what Hans Georg Gadamer defined as hermeneutic theory of romanticism to which he distanced. Hermeneutic theory of romanticism «conceived of understanding as the reproduction of an original production. Hence it was possible to say that one should be able to understand an author better than he understood himself. We examined the origin of this statement and its connection with the aesthetics of genius» (Gadamer 2006: 295). In “You Complete Me: Posthumous Works and Secondary Agency” (2015) Sondra Bacharach and Deborah Tollefsen deal with the issue of completion in cases another author «completes» the work of an artists that «is deemed incomplete by any standard of completion» (Bacharach, Tollefsen 2015: 71), whereat already this initial definition of completion demonstrates how the authors in their comprehension are not familiar with or disrespect the possibilities of the work to be open as discussed in this article.

24 Heidegger 1993: 199.

25 Ibidem: 183.

26 Valéry 1958a: 152.

27 Eco 1989: 9

28 Valéry 1958a: 152.

29 Barthes 1977: 146.

30 Ibidem.

31 Ibidem: 147.

32 Ibidem: 148.

33 Eco 1989: 19.

34 Barthes 1977: 148.

35 Eco 1989: 11.

36 Valéry 1958a: 152.

37 Derrida 1992: 5.

38 Ibidem: 9.

39 Eco 1989: 19.

40 Ibidem: 15.

41 Robey 1989: XII.

42 Eco 2007: 39.

43 Ibidem.

44 Gadamer 2006: 82.

45 Ibidem: 81.

46 Gadamer 2006: 82.

47 Ibidem: 85.

48 «The aesthetic object is not constituted in the aesthetic experience of grasping it, but the work of art itself is experienced in its aesthetic quality through the process of its concretization and creation. In this I agree fully with Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetics of ‘formativita’» (Gadamer 2006: 164).

49 Zabala 2007: 5.

50 Vattimo 1988: 173.

51 Eco 2007: 42.

52 Rosso 1990: 86.

53 Zabala 2007: 20.

54 Eco 2007: 51.

55 Ibidem.

56 Eco 1984: 7-11.

57 Di Martino 2012: 189.

58 Ferraris 2014: 3.

59 Ibidem: XV.

60 Jakobson 1985: 153.

61 Eco 1989: 169.

62 Ibidem.

63 Ibidem.

64 Ibidem: 171.

65 Ibidem.

66 Ibidem: 172.

67 Vattimo 1988: 52.

68 Danto 1984: 28.

69 Danto 1998: 134.

70 Eco 1989: 174.

71 Vattimo 1988: 56.

72 Eco 1989: 23.

73 Bourriaud 2002: 8, 11.

74 Ibidem: 18.

75 Bishop 2006: 12

76 Ibidem: 10.

77 Bishop 2012: 11.

78 Rancière 2009a.

79 Rancière 2009b: 32.

80 Rancière 2010: 37.

81 Ibidem: 36.

82 Eco 1989: 11.

83 Žižek 2008: 217.

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Polona Tratnik, «The Openness of Art. The Poetics of Art and Loss of Autonomy of Art»Rivista di estetica, 76 | 2021, 161-180.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Polona Tratnik, «The Openness of Art. The Poetics of Art and Loss of Autonomy of Art»Rivista di estetica [Online], 76 | 2021, online dal 01 mai 2021, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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