IN DECEMBER, 1948, Barnett (Baruch) Newman wrote an essay entitled “The Sublime is Now.” In 1950-51, he painted a canvas that he called Vir Heroicus Sublimus; in the early and mid ‘60s, he cast three bronze sculptures entitled Here I (For Marcia) , Here II, and Here III; another painting, from 1962, was called Not There––Here; two others, from 1965 and 1967, were titled Now I and Now II. In 1949 he painted Be I (of which he did a second version in 1970), and in 1961-64 he painted Be II.
How is one to understand the sublime––let us think of it as the focus of a sublime experience––as something “here and now”? On the contrary, isn’t it essential to this feeling to allude to something that cannot be demonstrated or, as Kant said, presented? In a short, unfinished text from late 1949, Newman wrote that he was not concerned with a manipulation of space or of image in his paintings, but with a sensation of time. He added that by this he did not mean the kind of time laden with nostalgia, or drama, or references and history––the usual subjects of painting. After this qualification, his text stops short.
We are left with the question: what kind of time was Newman concerned with, what “now” did he have in mind? Thomas B. Hess, his friend and commentator, felt justified in writing that Newman’s time was the Makom or the Hamakom of Hebraic tradition––the there, the site, the place––the way the Torah refers to the unnamable divinity. I do not know enough about Makom to know whether this indeed was Newman’s intention. But then again, who does know enough about now? Newman surely cannot have been thinking of the “present instant,” the one that tries so hard to claim territory between the future and the past, but manages only to be devoured by them. That “now” is one of the temporal “ecstasies” that have been analyzed from Augustine’s day all the way to Edmund Husserl, according to a line of thought that has attempted to compose time out of consciousness. Newman’s now is a stranger to consciousness and cannot be composed in terms of it. Rather, it is what dismantles consciousness, what dismisses consciousness; it is what consciousness cannot formulate, and even what consciousness forgets in order to compose itself.
What we do not manage to think about is something happening, or, more simply, the happening. Not a major event in the media sense, not even a small event. Just an occurrence. This isn’t a matter of sense or reality bearing upon what happens––on what this might mean. Before finding out about the what and its significance, before the quid, we need the “before” so that it “may happen”––quod. The happening always “precedes” the question of what happens. It happens comes “before” is it happening? , is it this? , is it possible? . “Only then” can any point be determined through inquiry: is this or that or that happening, is it this or something else, is this or that possible? An event, an occurrence––what Martin Heidegger called ein Ereignis––is infinitely simple. But this simplicity can only be grasped through need; that which we call thought must be disarmed. There are traditions and institutions for philosophy, for painting, for politics, for literature; these various “disciplines” have destinies in the form of schools, programs, research projects, and “trends.” Thought seizes upon what is received, it seeks to reflect and overcome. It seeks to determine what has already been thought, written, painted, or socialized in order to determine what hasn’t been. We know this process well––it is our daily bread. It is the bread of war, the biscuit of soldiers. But this agitation, in the most noble sense of the word (agitation is the word Kant gives for the cerebral activity that encompasses exercises and judgement), this agitation is possible only if something remains to be determined, something that hasn’t been determined before. One strives to determine “something” by setting up a system, a theory, a program, or a project––and indeed one has to, all the while anticipating the “something.” One can also inquire about that which “remains” and allow the indeterminate to appear as a question mark.
All intellectual disciplines and institutions take for granted that not everything has been said, written, or recorded, that words already heard or pronounced are not the last words. “After” a sentence, “after” a color, comes another sentence, another color. One doesn’t necessarily know which, but it is possible to guess if credence is given to the rules that chain one sentence to another, cue one color from another––rules preserved in precisely the institutions of the past and future that I mention above. The school, the program, the project––all proclaim that after such a sentence, such another sentence or at least such sort of a sentence is mandatory, that one kind of sentence is permitted, while another is forbidden. This holds true for painting as much as for any other activity involving thought. After one pictorial work, another is necessary, permitted, or forbidden. After one color, this other color; after this characteristic, that one. There isn’t an enormous difference between an avant-garde manifesto and a curriculum at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, if one considers them in light of the relationship to time; both position themselves in relation to events that will, they believe lead to an eventual good. Both also forget the possibility that nothing will happen, that words, colors, forms, or sounds will be absent, that some sentence will be the last, that one day the bread will not arrive. This is the misery that the painter encounters with plastic surface, or the musician with an acoustic surface; it is the misery the thinker sees in the desert of thought. It isn’t simply a matter of the empty canvas or the empty page, at the “beginning” of a work, but of each instance of something being imminent, which makes a question of every question mark, every “and now what?”. We tend to assume that nothing will happen without the feeling of anxiety, a term much elaborated on by modern philosophers of existence and the unconscious. This gives anticipation, if we really mean anticipation, a predominantly negative value. In fact suspense can also be accompanied by pleasure––for instance, pleasure in the unknown––and even by joy––the joy, to paraphrase Baruch Spinoza, the intensification of being, that the event introduces. This probably brings up contradictory feelings. It is at the very least a sign of the question mark itself. The question can adapt itself to any tone, as Jacques Derrida would say. But the mark of the question is the “now,” now in the sense that nothing might happen.