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Investigations: The Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris

Katia Schneller
Noura Wedell

II. The Text/Image Problem under Investigation

Triangulating Morris’ Intention? Davidson on Morris Quoting Davidson

Jean-Michel Roy

Texte intégral

What Is Davidson Doing in Blind Time Drawings Series IV?

  • 1 Donald Davidson, Truth, Language and History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005). About Ro (...)

1“What am I doing there ?” This is how Davidson opens “The Third Man,”1 the critical piece he was invited to write for the 1992 exhibition of the fourth of the Blind Time Drawings Series (Fig. 32), in each element of which Morris inserted a quotation of one of Davidson’s philosophical writings. Davidson’s question is a very natural one to ask, because it constitutes an immediate reaction, shared by all viewers of the work, to a presence felt as incongruous on many counts. And this incongruity calls for an explanation on each one of these different counts, that can be ordered by level of generality from the more specific to the more general.

32. Robert Morris, Blind Time Drawings IV: Drawing with Davidson, 1991. Graphite on paper, 38 × 50 inches (97.5 × 127 cm), Collection of the artist.

32. Robert Morris, Blind Time Drawings IV: Drawing with Davidson, 1991. Graphite on paper, 38 × 50 inches (97.5 × 127 cm), Collection of the artist.

© 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

2We want to understand, in the first place, why Morris picked up those specific texts of Davidson, and not other ones. But we also want to understand why he picked up texts by Davidson, and not by any other philosopher. Further, we need to make sense of the fact that he used philosophical texts, and not literary or scientific ones, as he in fact did in other parts of the overall Blind Time Drawings Series. But providing answers to these questions will not suffice to fully satisfy our curiosity. Assuming that Morris needed to resort to certain elements of Davidson’s philosophy in order to realize this particular work, we also need to understand why he opts for this specific way of making use of them, namely incorporating them in his drawings, and incorporating them in a quite specific manner.

3All these questions are the different facets of one single general problem, that of understanding the relation between Morris’ Blind Time Drawings Series IV and the philosophy of Davidson. But solving this problem obviously requires a further enlargement of the scope of inquiry to the general relation between the whole of Morris’ artistic output and the philosophy of Davidson. As a matter of fact, the incongruous insertion of Davidsonian quotations into Blind Time Drawings Series IV is not the only way in which the work of the philosopher interferes with that of the artist. Morris also refers on several occasions to Davidson’s thought in his own writings, and even dedicates two specific pieces to it. In order to be fully understood, the incorporations offered by Blind Time Drawings Series IV must clearly be compared with these other, apparently more classical, forms of the presence of Davidson’s philosophical work in Morris’ artistic one.

4But they must also be confronted with the attention paid by Morris to other philosophical figures. For he not only refers to Davidson, but also to a non-negligible number of prominent philosophers, most of whom belong to the twentieth century, and even more specifically, to the analytical side of twentieth century philosophy. A rather incongruous fact also, given, on the one hand, that the analytical tradition largely neglected the problem of art and was essentially centered around issues of knowledge and, on the other hand, that it was the continental tradition that was essentially drawn upon by artists of his generation, especially in their efforts to come to terms with the issue of postmodernism versus modernism.

5In short, a full elucidation of the mysterious incorporation of Davidsonian writings in Morris’ Blind Time Drawings IV, that undoubtedly constitutes the central point of the impact of Davidson’s philosophy on his work, can only be achieved by means of a broader scope investigation of the relation that his complex artistic itinerary as a whole entertains with philosophy. Such an investigation should be organized around the systematic exploration of four basic questions:
a/ the what question: What philosophical theories does Morris make use of? And what ones, by contrast, does he exclude? What is, in particular, the exact place of Davidson among them?
b/ the how question: How does he make use of them? What are the various modalities of this use, and how do they relate one to the other?
c/ the when question: When does he start resorting to philosophy? Is there a specific moment when philosophy shows up in his artistic evolution? Is there an evolution in his use of philosophy, and if so, how does it correlate with his artistic evolution itself?
d/ the why question: Why does Morris use the philosophical theories he makes use of, in the way he does and at the times when he does?

6This is a project for a book that, to the best of my knowledge, is still to be written. My ambition must naturally be a much more limited one. As a matter of fact, I will venture into no more than a tentative critical analysis of the answer that Davidson himself provides in “The Third Man” to the question he raises. This answer obviously constitutes a precious starting point for the elucidation of his textual form of presence in Blind Time Drawings Series IV, and it is moreover of particularly topical interest for a conference dedicated to “the expanded field of writing” in Morris’ oeuvre. Furthermore, Davidson’s answer is anything but straightforward and therefore stands in need of an interpretation. But if its meaning cannot be taken for granted, neither can its correctness. Davidson might very well misunderstand what he is doing there. And such is the question that I ultimately wish to address: did Davidson understand what he was doing there?

What Does Davidson Think He Is Doing There?

7In spite of the ignorance that he initially professes as to what might account for the presence of pieces of his own theoretical writings in Blind Time Drawings IV, Davidson does eventually offer an hypothesis about it. But this hypothesis is based on a preliminary interpretation of the meaning of the drawings, a preliminary interpretation that constitutes in fact the essential part of his article. In other words, he draws a tentative answer to the question: what am I doing in these Blind Time Drawings IV? from an answer to the question: what is he (Morris) doing with those Blind Time Drawings IV? In addition, this preliminary answer developed by Davidson is an attempt to interpret Morris’ work in terms of his own philosophical theories, and in particular of what is known as his thesis of triangulation.

The Theory of Triangulation

  • 2 Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals,” “Epistemology externalized,” and “The Second Person,” Subject (...)

8The thesis of triangulation is introduced by Davidson in several different contexts in the course of the 1980s and then assumes a growing importance in his subsequent writings. It first appears as such in 1982 (“Rational Animals”) in an analysis of the concept of rationality as a means to elucidate the notion of objective truth, defined as “the concept of an objective reality which is independent of my belief.” It is reasserted in particular in a 1990 defense of the thesis of externalism, according to which the content of a person’s mental states is determined by elements of the environment of this person and not by the inner mechanisms of her own mind (“Epistemology externalized”). Of great importance also for understanding the basic meaning of the thesis of triangulation is a 1992 essay (“The Second Person”2) dedicated to the demonstration that a language cannot be private, in the sense that a language that would be understood by a single person is impossible.

9Despite this variety of contexts of introduction, the thesis of triangulation is an answer to a single and time honored philosophical question that can be formulated as follows: under what conditions can something be categorized as an object, in the sense of an entity different and independent from a living creature, and to which the mental states and language of this creature refer? And the answer offered by the thesis of triangulation is that something can be categorized as an object only to the extent that it can be related to two living creatures, and not one, and two living creatures interacting one with each other. The thesis of triangulation is thus a new version of the anything but new idea that an object is something essentially intersubjective, so that nothing could count as an object in a universe inhabited by a single living creature, or a single living subject if we assume—as Davidson seems to do—that the notion of subject itself can be defined independently from that of an object. In other words, according to the thesis of triangulation, an object is necessarily an element of a triad including, in addition to itself, two subjects, and three relations: one between each of the two subjects and the object, and one of interaction between the two subjects themselves. Eliminate any of the two subjects or any of the three relations and nothing is left that can be categorized as an object, in the sense of an element different and independent from a subject.

10Two aspects must in reality be distinguished in the thesis of triangulation. The most basic one, corresponding to the characterization just given of the thesis, claims that something can be categorized as an object only if, in such a triangular structure, the relation between the two subjects is one of interaction. The second one claims that the two subjects involved in such a structure can themselves categorize the object as such, that is to say can themselves have the concept of an object, only if they not only interact, but also communicate linguistically one with each other.

11In order to clarify this double content, let’s consider the case of a creature interacting with its environment. The basic question addressed by Davidson is: under what conditions can this interaction be categorized or interpreted as an interaction with a world of objects? But this question involves in fact two different ones, corresponding to the two aspects of the thesis.

12One question, answered by the first aspect of the thesis, can itself be formulated in the following terms: under what conditions can this interaction be interpreted as involving a relation with a world of objects?

13The other question, answered by the second aspect of the thesis, can in turn be put as follows: under what conditions can we interpret this interaction as one in which the creature itself considers the world it is interacting with as a world of objects? As emphasized by Davidson, the sheer existence of such an interaction with the environment, even if it is a successful one, does not imply that it is based on the apprehension of the environment as an objective one by the creature itself:

  • 3 Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals,” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, op. cit., p. 105.

A creature may interact in complex ways without entertaining any propositions. It may discriminate among colors, tastes, sounds, and shapes. It may learn, that is change its behavior, in ways that preserve its life and increase its food intake. It may “generalize,” in the sense of reacting to new stimuli as it has come to react to prior stimuli. Yet none of this, no matter how successful by my standards, shows that the creature commands the contrast between what is believed and what is the case, as required by belief.3

  • 4 Donald Davidson, “The Second Person,” op. cit., p. 117.

14A central example used by Davidson in order to support his twofold triangulation answer to this double interrogation is that of the learning of a language by a process of conditioning and reinforcement, such as the learning of the word “table” by a baby with the help of his parents: “The child babbles, and when it produces a sound like ‘table’ in the evident presence of a table, it is rewarded; the process is repeated and presently the child says ‘table’ in the presence of tables.”4

15This process is usually analyzed as one of causal interaction between an objective stimulus, the object table, and a verbal behavior of the baby, his pronouncing the word “table.” In this perspective, many objects belonging to the category of table cause in the baby specific visual percepts of a similar kind, and through rewarding, the baby is taught to associate to these table percepts specific verbal behavioral manifestations, that can also be grouped in virtue of their similarities into one category, namely that of pronouncing the word “table.” But what is the basis, Davidson asks, for postulating the presence of such an objective stimulus as a set of independent tables? In his opinion, the sheer interaction of the baby with the world offers none, because there is no reason to say that the baby is stimulated by objective tables instead of other objective stimuli offering an equal degree of similarities, such as patterns in the light waves transmitted to the eye of the baby, or of stimuli deprived of any objectivity, such as patterns of activity in the nerve endings of the child. Consequently, the only reason for objectifying the stimulus, that is to say for locating it in tables considered as objects, and therefore as entities different from and independent from the baby, is the fact that this stimulus is considered as common to the baby and the parents. Indeed, for Davidson, what is chosen as a stimulus of the baby’s reaction in such an analysis is what the parents would also react to, so that they can teach their baby to react to it.

  • 5 Donald Davidson, Truth, Language and History, op. cit., p. 160.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 177.

16A first claim is thus that there is no way to locate the stimulus unless a reference to another creature is introduced, and that the determination of what stimulates one creature is thus intrinsically dependent on what stimulates another creature having some interaction with the first one (such as teaching a language). To put it differently: what can count as a stimulus for one creature can only be something that counts as a common stimulus for another creature interacting with the first one. A second claim necessarily follows from this first one, namely that the common stimulus must be different from and independent from these two creatures, precisely because it is common to them. In “The Third Man,” Davidson writes for instance that the “object is the common cause of the responses,” and immediately adds: “a cause that must have a location in a shared, interpersonal word.”5 And in “Locating Literary Language” (1993), he mentions “the objectification of parts and aspects of the world which is made possible by intersubjective triangulation.”6 This transformation of a stimulus into an object by means of an appropriate triangular structure is what Davidson calls the triangulation of an object. Triangulating something thus really means objectifying that something through an appropriate triangle structure.

17Davidson’s argument for the first aspect of the triangulation thesis can be thus summarized as the conjunction of the three following assertions:
1/ the notion of stimulus of a creature’s behavior only makes sense if it can refer to something determinate;
2/ it can only refer to something determinate if it is understood as the notion of a stimulus common to two interacting creatures;
3/ the moment it is so understood, it refers to something objective, i.e. different and independent from these creatures.

  • 7 Donald Davidson, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, op. cit., p. 104.
  • 8 See in particular “The Second Person,” op. cit., p. 121.

18The process of word learning under consideration is however also usually analyzed, according to Davidson, as one in which the tables to which both the baby and his parents respond visually and linguistically (for instance by saying: “here is a table” or “this is a table”) are apprehended by both of them as objects. Such an apprehension is in his opinion a matter of belief: apprehending the perceptual stimuli as objective tables means that they believe that there is something such as an objective table. And for a number of reasons exposed in “Rational Animals,” Davidson also contends that a creature cannot be endowed with the capacity to have beliefs without having the capacity to forge the concept of belief, that itself implies the concept of “an independent reality which is independent of [the] belief.”7 As a consequence, two creatures can only be considered as seeing their interaction with the world as an apprehension of objects if they can be credited with having the concept of an object. And the second part of the thesis of triangulation is precisely that they can only be credited with it under the condition that they communicate one with each other linguistically, that is to say if the basis of the triangular structure necessary for the emergence of objectivity is not only one of interaction, but also one of linguistic communicative interaction. The idea behind this second assertion, although it is not phrased in a satisfactory way by Davidson in my opinion, is that, since the object is a common source of stimulation, it has to be recognized as such to be recognized as an object, and that this can only be achieved through a relation of communication, that Davidson readily assimilates with a linguistic one.8 I need to communicate with the other in order to know that we have common sources of stimulation, and then come up with the very notion of a common and independent source of stimulation. In addition, what holds for the very notion of an object also holds for concepts of particular objects. In order to obtain the notion of a table as a common source of stimulation, I need to know that what I apprehend as a source of stimulation of a particular kind is also what the other apprehends as such, and I can only know it, according to Davidson’s analysis, through linguistic communication with the other. Objectification requires mutual linguistic interpretation between the two subjects involved in the triangular structure.

Art Object and Triangulation

  • 9 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.
  • 10 Donald Davidson, “Locating Literary language,” op. cit., p. 176.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 167.
  • 12 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.
  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 Ibid.

19This triangle, that Davidson calls “primal”9 or “primitive,”10 only captures “the origins of intentionality and objectivity.”11 We also have conceptual relations with objects that do not immediately fit the situation that it describes. However, according to Davidson, all forms of objectification—the term is his, cf. supra—can be ultimately referred to such situations and analyzed as modified forms of a primitive triangularity. “Language soon reaches far beyond what can be immediately and jointly experienced”12 and contributes to the elaboration of a “conceptual space,” a set of specific assumptions about what is out there in the objective world, that plays a crucial role in making communication possible in all these situations where we “talk and think about what is too small or distant to be seen or touched,”13 or where the “interaction between perceiving creatures that is the [basic] foundation of communication is lost.”14

  • 15 Donald Davidson, “Locating Literary language,” op. cit., p. 160.
  • 16 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.

20The apprehension of artworks corresponds to one of these modified forms of the primitive triangle, because “works of art… are among the objects in the world.”15 In other words, we relate to artworks as objects, and as such artworks presuppose particular kinds of triangulation, of which Davidson only offers a coarse-grained analysis in his writings, focusing in addition almost exclusively on the case of literary works as well as on that of Morris’ Blind Time Drawings Series IV, considered as a “plastic”16 type of artwork. All of them seem to share in Davidson’s eyes a number of specific features however. Three of these features must be mentioned in order to understand his analysis of what Morris does with the Blind Time Drawings Series IV.

  • 17 Ibid.

21In the first place, the two creatures involved are the artist and what we might call, for lack of a better generic word, the spectator. A resulting difference with the primitive triangle is that one of the apexes of the base of the triangle is a producer of the object triangulated, and not an observer of it. An additional consequence is that there is often no immediate interaction that can serve as a basis for their mutual interpretation, since the artist is usually not there when the spectator apprehends the work, although performance art clearly is an exception. This is one of the reasons why their communication relies heavily on the concepts they already and knowingly share, taking advantage of the fact that, as Davidson puts it in his unquestionably precious style, art “enters the conceptual scene at an advanced stage.”17 This conceptual scene or space serves as what he calls the background of the communication.

Triangulating Morris

22This notion of artistic triangulation lies at the core of Davidson’s interpretation of Morris’ Blind Times Series IV, as well as of his own presence in it. As far as I can understand it, this interpretation includes four complementary aspects.

  • 18 Robert Morris, Continous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993.
  • 19 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 163.
  • 20 Ibid.

23In the first place, Davidson sees the Blind Time Drawings Series IV as an illustration of Morris’ notion of process art, making explicit reference to his article “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,”18 where Morris very clearly articulates the project of an art that, in Davidson’s own words, carries out “the project of bringing the act of their making into the works themselves.”19 But Davidson also thinks that the Blind Time Drawings Series IV carries out such a project “one step further, or a least in a new direction” compared to other artists with a similar orientation or to Morris’ earlier works, such as Box with The Sound of its Own Making. This new step or direction is described as follows: “Not only do these pictures graphically display some of the essential features of all intentional actions, but they also engage the collaboration of the viewer in a way that connects with the origins of the concept of an object.”20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 164.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.

24Accordingly, the second aspect of Davidson’s interpretation is twofold. It first consists in claiming that Morris lays bare not only the process of the making of the drawings, but the intentional dimension of this process, that is to say what he intended to do with these drawings. As a result, “…viewers… know [not only] how they were produced, but… why.”21 This intention is not the deep one that motivated Morris, more or less consciously, to embark into this ground-breaking artistic experiment, but “for each object, the detailed intention it was meant to realize.”22 It is expressed above all through the last two of the four elements that Davidson distinguishes in the drawings, and which are: the drawing itself, the marks disposed on the paper before the act of drawing, the description of the task and the Davidsonian quotations. Indeed, the description of the task (element 3) has as one of its functions, according to Davidson, to “express an intention, the intention to perform a certain action within a given (subjectively estimated) period, and with the eyes closed.” While the texts (element 4) are excerpts of “an attempt to make explicit the everyday conceptual apparatus with which we all operate, the part of this apparatus some philosophers like to call ‘Folk Psychology,’”23 and that Davidson sees as an apparatus centered around the concept of intention. In other words, the originality of Morris’ drawings would be to contain an explicit linguistic communication of the mental state that presided over their creation.

  • 24 Ibid.
  • 25 Ibid.

25In addition, the consequence of this exposition, within the art object itself, of the intentional dimension of its process of creation is for Davidson to elicit what he variously qualifies as a collaboration, an interaction, or a participation of the viewer. Given the information that is provided to him about the intentional dimension, the viewer can firstly retrieve from the drawing the act of its production, he can “vividly picture” it.24 But this picturing is furthermore an understanding, and therefore a penetration of the inner essential nature of the act, that is normally reserved for the subject of this act. Finally, and this is the key point of Davidson’s analysis, “what ensures the participation of viewers is the fact that the accomplishment can be directly measured against the intention… we cannot help being involved, as he must be, in the question of how close he did come. We can see where his patterns fall, and we can see, because he provided us with the targets, by how much he missed the marks.”25 In other words, given that we have access to the immediate intention of the artistic act, we also penetrate its logic of failure and success, we get an insider view of it.

  • 26 Ibid., p. 163.

26It is at this point that Davidson clarifies what I take as the third aspect of his interpretation, according to which the collaboration of the viewer is engaged “in a way that connects with the origins of the concept of an object.”26 But in what sense exactly is there here a connection with the theory of triangulation?

  • 27 Ibid., p. 165.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 164.

27It is first to be observed that Davidson’s formulation is ambiguous: does he refer to the basic triangulation that locates a stimulus as an object or to the establishment of a communicative link, in addition to an interactive one, at the base of the triangle, through which the concept of an object emerges in each of the two elements of this base? As a matter of fact, both count as origins of the concept of the object. It seems that the first option is the correct one. Indeed, Davidson concludes his interpretation with the following sentences: “Morris has depicted, then, the essential element on which the concept of an autonomous object (and world) depends: an intersubjective measure of error and success, of truth and falsity. He has put his viewers in a position to triangulate with him the location of his creative acts.”27 But the intersubjective measure of success and failure mentioned here seems to be Morris’ intention, given that he also wrote earlier in his analysis that “what ensures the participation of viewers is the fact that the accomplishment can be measured directly against the intention.”28 In other words, the idea apparently put forward is that Morris’ intention is itself objectified by being included in the drawing. It so to speak benefits from the triangulation of the drawing. And this is the reason why Davidson can write that the Blind Time Drawings Series IV lays bare the intentional dimension of the act of artistic creation “in a way that connects with the origins of the concept of an object.”

  • 29 Ibid., p. 165.
  • 30 Ibid., p. 164.

28The final aspect of the interpretation addresses at last the role of the Davidsonian quotations. Davidson offers to read them in this perspective as an element of specification of the background of this process of triangulation or objectification of Morris’ intention. “This leaves me with the question with which I began: what is my work doing here? I hazard this answer: it expands the background against which we encounter Morris’ ‘actions.’ …all our thoughts and actions occur within, and derive their meaning from, a vast system of largely communal assumption and ideas. Perhaps the quotations from my writings, which are concerned with the nature of thought and of action, hint at this larger canvas.”29 Such an interpretation implies that there is a close connection between what these texts talk about and what Morris does. For they specify what we assume an intentional act to be, and Morris’ artistic act is an intentional action: “the ‘action,’ Davidson adds, illustrates and exemplifies what the texts say.”30

29In the perspective expressed in “The Third Man,” the role played by the philosophy of Davidson in the 1991 work of Morris should therefore be seen as a threefold one of interpretation, inspiration and illustration.

30On the one hand, Davidson’ philosophy can interpret Morris’ work, inasmuch as this philosophy can provide an explanation of what Morris does in the Blind Time Drawings Series IV, including an explanation of his incorporation of Davidsonian quotations. This is a standard case of theoretical clarification of the nature of a piece of art by a philosophical theory.

31In addition, this interpretation is not external to the work of Morris in the sense that his work is considered to be itself theoretically based on the philosophy of Davidson. Indeed, a work of art can be interpretable by a philosophical theory, even though it is elaborated in complete ignorance of such a theory. And this could be true in the present case in spite of the presence of quotations by Davidson. For instance if the incorporation of these quotations was seen as a purely decorative or mischievous device. Such is not the reading of Davidson, who therefore thinks that the Blind Times Drawings Series IV illustrates another type of standard relation between a philosophical theory and a work of art, namely that of providing a theoretical resource for the very process of artistic creation. The texts quoted correspond to elements of theoretical inspiration. They are sorts of footnotes at the bottom of the drawings where Morris reveals his sources.

32Finally, these texts could be used theoretically by Morris without illustrating directly what he is doing. But, as already mentioned, this is here again not the option taken by Davidson who sees the drawings as exemplifying them.

Does Davidson Correctly Understand What He Is Doing There?

33How satisfactory is Davidson’s explanation of his textual presence in Morris’ Blind Time Drawings Series IV, and more generally of the meaning of this work? The question is complex and a full answer to it must unfortunately be left for another occasion. I will content myself with indicating some of the tasks that must be carried out in order to provide one and with making a few critical observations that point to an alternative interpretation yet to be fully worked out.

34It seems to me, in the first place, that this answer must be developed on the basis of the preliminary examination of an additional question that can be put in the following terms: what could Davidson be doing there? Or more generally: how could the philosophy of Davidson and the work of Morris be in principle related? For, as Bertrand Russell—a founding father of analytical philosophy that Morris scarcely mentions, if at all—used to say, exploring the realm of the logically possible is often the best tool to understand the realm of the real. Indeed, Davidson’s interpretation is entirely predicated on the unquestioned but questionable assumption that, if Morris quotes him in his works, it is because these works are inspired by the content of these quotations, to the point of even directly exemplifying them. And Davidson also clearly assumes that this is not only the right way to understand his presence in the Blind Time Drawings Series IV, but also to understand any reference to his work by Morris. These assumptions are, however, disputable and the benefit of a preliminary exploration of the possible relations between a piece of art and a piece of philosophical theorizing is that it liberates the imagination and therefore helps to see how these assumptions can be disputed. Such an exploration is all the more important since Morris’ work is closely vinculated with the current of conceptual art, that made very strong claims about the articulation of artistic activity with theoretical reflection. According to its most radical versions at least, conceptual art defends indeed the view that an artwork is reducible to a concept, and accordingly that the artist is a conceptualizer, that is, a thinker just like the philosopher.

  • 31 Robert Morris, Have I Reasons: Works and Writings 1993-2007, 2008.

35A first issue to be addressed on the basis of such a preliminary examination is that of determining whether the Davidsonian interpretation of the Blind Time Drawings Series IV, even if it is correct, can be extended to the other forms that Davidson’s presence takes in Morris’ work. And here a text such as The Art of Davidson31 clearly recommends a negative answer, since Morris considers in this text Davidson’s thought as a system that has an artistic value beyond its theoretical value.

36A second task to be undertaken is to confront Davidson’s interpretation with the response that Morris himself offered to it in “Writing with Davidson: Some Afterthoughts After Doing Blind Time Drawings IV.” Here the question to be considered is: does Morris think that Davidson understood why he put him there?

37Finally, the third and main requirement is to analyze, whatever Morris’ opinion is in this respect, whether Davidson’s interpretation of the Blind Time Series IV is convincing enough, or whether a more appropriate one can be recommended.

38I personally do not find his reading in terms of the theory of triangulation very convincing, because I do not find in the first place the theory of triangulation itself very convincing, for a number of reasons that I will nevertheless leave aside. For even if one accepts this theory as a specific hypothesis about the origins of the concept of objectivity, it is more deeply the very idea that the Blind Time Drawings IV should be interpreted in a way that “connects with the origins of the concept of an object,” as Davidson puts it, that seems to be wrong headed. In other words, I believe that the notion of an objectification of the artist’s intention is not the appropriate conceptual tool for understanding the series. A correct element in Davidson’s interpretation is that the drawings should be primarily apprehended in connection with Morris’ long-standing concern for a process-oriented art versus a product-oriented one, and that the intentional dimension of this process is central. But I think we should read this unquestionable importance of the process of art making and of its intentional dimension differently.

39In my opinion, what Morris is after is not only an art that lays bare the process of production or even puts the emphasis on the process rather than the product, but also an art that analyzes this process and experiments artistically with it. And in the case of the Blind Time Drawings Series IV, the artist’s intention is at the core of what we might call this artistic analysis, because the process of drawing is apprehended as an intentional one. Using philosophical terminology, I would say that the Blind Time Drawings Series IV constitutes an artistic analysis of the intentional action of drawing, or of drawing as an intentional action.

  • 32 Robert Morris, Continous Project Altered Daily, 1993, p. ix.

40When approached from this perspective, it seems further that Morris’ whole point in realizing the drawings is to challenge a certain way of understanding and practicing the intentional action of drawing that dominated the whole tradition of art, and that he sees as intrinsically linked with “‘that rotting sack of Humanism’ that always provided a target” for him.32

41According to this traditional conception, a drawing is a direct product of an intention, which consequently is to be defined as an intention having that very drawing for an object. And the visual perception of the emergence of the drawing by the artist plays for this reason an essential role in guiding the realization of his intention. The gestures by means of which the drawing will be produced are on the contrary left indeterminate, and in that sense are considered as inessential to defining and understanding what the artist does. Similarly, the amount of time needed to obtain the drawing is left indeterminate and is considered as inessential. It might be short or long, depending on the agility and the inspiration of the drawer, and many other purely circumstantial elements. In other words, the art of drawing is conceived on the standard model of what philosophers of action call a transitive action, that is to say an action defined by a certain state of affairs to be obtained and external to the action itself. When to the question, “what is this man doing?,” I answer, “he is building a house,” I am defining his doing by means of an intention to bring into the world a certain object.

42Now, when we look at the drawings of Blind Time Drawings Series IV before knowing anything about them, either through their title or through Morris’ written comments, we are spontaneously driven to understand them in this traditional manner. We apprehend them as the fulfillment of an intention to produce, and to produce under the guidance of visual perception, what we precisely see on the piece of paper. Not because this is the only way they could have been produced, but because this is the way what we call drawings are traditionally produced. They could, for instance, have been the result of an accident, or of a purely mechanical process with no artist involved, or of many other processes. To use a concept that plays an important role in Davidson’s philosophy, the drawings as such underdetermine their conditions of production, in the sense that they are theoretically compatible with countless possibilities regarding the nature of these conditions. And this is precisely why we need the information provided by Morris in the title or in the writings that accompany them. Without them we cannot rightly interpret their mode of production. And I think that the whole point of the Blind Time Drawings Series IV is to exploit this underdetermination and to explore a new way of realizing drawings. A way in which the visual guidance is rejected, in which the time of execution is somehow limited, in which the discrepancies between its objective and its subjective determinations are taken into consideration, and, above all, in which there is no intention of realizing the drawings themselves that we see. That is to say where the act of drawing is not a transitive kind of intentional action. Indeed, a striking fact in what Morris communicates of his intentions is that these intentions are only defined in terms of gestures. The drawings themselves are just the consequences of these gestures, they are so to speak the by-products of the artist’s intentions and not its products. In short, what I am suggesting, is that the right way to apprehend the Blind Time Drawings Series IV is by way of confronting them with the way we should understand them if they were drawings realized according to the traditional conception of drawing, because they fundamentally constitute a critical analysis, of an artistic kind, of that traditional conception. Now, if this interpretation is on the right track, it suggests a fairly different reading of the relation of these drawings with Davidson’s theory of action, and consequently, of the role played in them by the Davidsonian quotations. For, if indeed that theory is an analysis of our folk psychology—that is to say of the way we ordinarily understand action considered as intentional behavior—, these quotations speak directly to the inadequacy of that ordinary conception for capturing what is essential in the nature of the artistic action of drawing, and in Morris’ act of drawing the Blind Time Drawings Series IV in particular.


1 Donald Davidson, Truth, Language and History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005). About Robert Morris and the philosopher Donald Davidson, see Robert Morris, “Writing with Davidson: Some Afterthoughts After Doing Blind Time IV: Drawing with Davidson,” 1993, pp. 617-627.

2 Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals,” “Epistemology externalized,” and “The Second Person,” Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001).

3 Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals,” in Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, op. cit., p. 105.

4 Donald Davidson, “The Second Person,” op. cit., p. 117.

5 Donald Davidson, Truth, Language and History, op. cit., p. 160.

6 Ibid., p. 177.

7 Donald Davidson, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, op. cit., p. 104.

8 See in particular “The Second Person,” op. cit., p. 121.

9 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.

10 Donald Davidson, “Locating Literary language,” op. cit., p. 176.

11 Ibid., p. 167.

12 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Donald Davidson, “Locating Literary language,” op. cit., p. 160.

16 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 161.

17 Ibid.

18 Robert Morris, Continous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993.

19 Donald Davidson, “The Third Man,” op. cit., p. 163.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 164.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 163.

27 Ibid., p. 165.

28 Ibid., p. 164.

29 Ibid., p. 165.

30 Ibid., p. 164.

31 Robert Morris, Have I Reasons: Works and Writings 1993-2007, 2008.

32 Robert Morris, Continous Project Altered Daily, 1993, p. ix.

Table des illustrations

Titre 32. Robert Morris, Blind Time Drawings IV: Drawing with Davidson, 1991. Graphite on paper, 38 × 50 inches (97.5 × 127 cm), Collection of the artist.
Légende © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
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