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Fr. 431

November 6, 2013

The question of representation has long dominated philosophical circles, taking on a variety of forms in different philosophical sub-fields. For truth and epistemology, that question has been one of whether the individual’s beliefs accurately represent the reality of things and, thus, attain to knowledge. Does the individual know because his or her beliefs reflect the state of the world? Or can he or she only have knowledge of the representations of an otherwise unknowable world? In a similar line of thought, philosophy of language has often asked if language’s primary function consist in the proposition’s representation of the state of the world at a given moment. In other words, is language a mirror of the world in some way?

If several schools of 20th century philosophy have tasked themselves with the refusal and reversal of various tenets of representation and its attendant views (such as in Deleuze’s attempt to overturn identity and representation in Différence et répétition or in constructivist theories of language), philosophy is not alone in this respect. Art proves another discipline in which, at times, the representationalist drive to depict reality has been dispelled, from the -isms of the late 19th century and early 20th century to the both earlier and later abstract and conceptual movements. Yet these movements do not cover all possible ways of tackling the thorny problem of representation. Indeed, there are still others, one of which can be found in Roy Lichtenstein’s Mirrors and Lamps series. Here, the artist’s intent is to substitute directly the art-object for the object otherwise to be depicted or represented.


Roy Lichtenstein, "Mirror #4", 1970


Accordingly, the lines, shadows and reflections of the mirror to be captured in representationalist painting instead come to the foreground for their own sake. Patterns, colors and blanks evoke the form of a mirror. Moreover, in resisting initial attempts at understanding, they inform the onlooker that the object with which he or she is confronted is itself a mirror that reflects nothing. It is an object in its own right, whose primary purpose is now to stand in relation to others, objects and subjects, rather than throw their images back. No longer are there questions of fidelity or reflection. In becoming the object itself, it leaves behind the object’s purpose. Anything that it might owe, it owes only to itself as an end in itself.

Although the lamp does not quite capture the relation of representation to the same extent as the mirror, there remains here a question of illumination. For, like the mirror, the lamp depicted in the painting was little more than  a means to some other end: that of lighting, mood or revealing some feature otherwise hidden from view. In other words, the lamp’s relation to itself was merely secondary, a matter of theory or abstraction, and it is only with its passage from revealing object to object revealed qua metal sculpture that it stands apart from this role of illuminator.

Roy Lichtenstein, "Lamp II", 1977


This is not to say that the lamp henceforth refuses all illumination. Rather, it is a question of the object of illumination. Here, the lamp moves from illuminating others to illuminating itself, the rays of light normally to be cast on other objects so as to render them visible here becoming the sculpture’s own supports. For this reason, the lamp become work of art reappropriates its illuminating function and purpose with the aim of illuminating only itself, to put itself forward in a new light to the onlooker, who, perhaps for the first time, sees the lamp as something other than an enabler of representation. For the first time, the lamp becomes an independent entity in its own.

It is precisely this trend that is to be remarked in the art-as-object trend in Lichtenstein’s work, remarkable as it is for the way in which it parallels concurrent refusals of representation in philosophy, all the while approaching the issue in its own manner with its own tools and resources.

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