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L’Empreinte des choses

André Topia
Marie-Christine Lemardeley

L’aspirateur et le pic à glace : du kitsch au polar

How can things be beautiful: signs, patches, and assignats

Kevin Barry


This essay is an enquiry into the neglect of beauty in recent considerations of the aesthetic, and the presence of things as markers of beauty in works that are marked by the imminence or immediacy of death. The late writings of Derek Jarman, his cinematic and painterly experimentation with luxury and then with mere colour, his garden and his diary of a garden, are analysed in the light of his certainty that he is now dying. The analysis is extended out to consider other moments of the imprint of things on the aesthetic of death, and particularly in the internal dynamics of David’s Marat assassiné.

Testo integrale

1It is as well to begin with some negatives. My interest is not in the beauty of works, nor of art objects, nor of literary forms. Nor is my interest in the aesthetics of astonishment, magnificence, or splendour. I do not wish to place abstract beauty against revulsion or distaste or sublime delights. I do not wish to talk about the hall of mirrors at Versailles.

Found object from Derek Jarman’s Garden, Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley

2My interest is instead in poor beauty: beauty that is poor, first, because it attaches to the poverty of things, their mere particularity (this iron shape, that handful of stones); and poor beauty, second, because of its neglect in the study of the humanities, especially in the anglophone world, during most of my working life.

3I wish to compensate for that neglect, because I keep coming upon beauty, am pulled up short by beauty, usually the beauty of things, and (more awkwardly) the beauty of things in texts. My interest then is to notice the way in which a writer might allow that things are beautiful. That is to say, I want to examine how texts reveal that things can be in excess of the true or the good by reason of a certain pleasure they occasion. The texts that interest me here are not those (I might instance Swift or Sterne, Dickens or Beckett) where the imprint of things is so deeply marked and so artfully structured as to shock the reader into a recognition of the gross materiality of things and persons. My interest, rather, is in texts where the imprint is fainter, texts which tolerate the contradiction that “A sky in art is a sky / Things in art are not things” (Ad Reinhardt, California, cited in Jarman, Chroma 3).

4What is it about things I notice in a text? A gesture of particularity, a moment of non-representational presence, insofar as a thing might make no pretence of signifying another thing or idea, a thing that does not function towards an end which would almost annihilate it, and is not an instrument of a consequence that would merge it in a narrative of causes and effects.

5The focus of my remarks will be the English writer, painter, gardener, and cinematographer Derek Jarman who died in 1994. Jarman is the director of a dozen films including Sehastiane, Jubilee, Caravaggio, The Last of England, and The Garden. His published books include Dancing Ledge, Modem Nature, and At Your Own Risk. My particular interest is in the writings of his last three years, and these include a diary, Smiling in Slow Motion, a study of colour, Chroma, and a film, Blue, in which the screen remains throughout monochrome. During those years, terminally ill with HIV/AIDS, living had for Jarman almost the same sense as dying. “I would rather be alive than dead”, he noted in a diary entry for October 1992, and added by way of explanation: “I’m too curious about the here and now.”

View of Garden with Dungeness Power Station

6What first fascinated me in Jarman’s diary were passages laconically reduced to the here and now. Jarman divided his time between London, where he worked and spent time in hospital, and a disused fisherman’s cottage surrounded by his garden, overlooking the seashore at Dungeness with a nuclear power station in full view across the inlet.

The rain still pours down. Out on the beach one of the old wood and corrugated sheds has been demolished. There is a pile of new material for the garden: chains, floats and large iron hooks. This is the third hut that has disappeared from my view in a few years. (Smiling in Slow Motion 233)

7In the informal structures of Jarman’s texts these moments punctuate a narrative that is always at risk of interpretation, an interpretation he refuses. The tale he tells is of the dreadful imminence of his death, and he is aware that his dying is open to interpretation as a moral fable of the wrongness of same-sex sins of the flesh. Jarman is always under pressure, especially media pressure: from the tabloids, from the Guardian, from Gay News, and equally from a sympathetic interviewer with the BBC. For Jarman it is less difficult to resist the spectacular fantasies of the tabloids (AIDS BLOOD IN M&S PIES PLOT) than to refuse the positive images demanded by Gay News and the Guardian.

Monday 6th April: I went up to the Heath and sat in the cold, chatting to old friends. I had no sex—dear Guardian reader—as it was freezing [...]

Thursday 9th April: Down to Dungeness on the train clutching the Guardian article. A horrible picture of me grafted on to the body of Michelangelo’s David. The Guardian should shrink itself to a tabloid instead of disguising itself as a broadsheet of repute [...]

Saturday 11th July: [...] A long conversation with a charming young man on the Heath about a review of At Your Own Risk in Gay Times. [...] it brought up a whole chain of thoughts.
The concept of positive images was born out of gay liberation in the 1970s; Gay Times is of that time [...] The great queer artists dealt with the negatives, this is why Pasolini and Genet will last long after Gay Times is forgotten in a world of false hope and illusion fed by adverts. A film like Salò is a necessary antidote, you could hardly call Pasolini ‘gay’. [...] If we had corne up with ‘difficult’ that would have been better. Difficult News, Difficult’s The Word, thank God for Queer—Capital Queer, Queer Times. (Smiling in Slow Motion 112-113, 168-169)

8And after a sympathetic BBC interview with Jeremy Isaacs, he comments (1st February 1993):

It was difficult at moments. I find myself hesitating on the question of sex on the Heath. How anonymous is anonymous? A hornet’s nest of taboo sex, HIV, casual partners, this is one you can’t win. (Smiling in Slow Motion 307)

9Jarman, dying of HIV/AIDS, is poorly placed to defend the bliss of Hampstead Heath, but he will not deny it. He refuses to succumb to positive images of being gay, relishing instead the irresponsible condition of being queer. The different rhetorics of The Sun, the Guardian, Gay Times, and the BBC, all place Jarman as a representative instance of the fatality of being queer, the narrative of his illness as a dying proof of the wrongness of queer lives. Against those rhetorics he places the facticity of things. His forms of containment are the diary and the garden. Time is not on his side, but the diary form can use whatever time is available to record the casual and particular: “Is time the something of nothing?” (Smiling in Slow Motion 261). And the garden puts some spatial order on time, not only in the seasonal return of colours, but also in the visible slowing down of time in things rescued from rubbish, waste, ruin, and disuse. The garden is a place for objects found in its own vicinity, sea-and wind-worn wood and metal and stone, unrecognisable as the human artefacts they once were, now no more than limpid and terminal trash. It is not inconsistent with the particularity of this aesthetic that the film Blue reduces the time of its projection to the duration of a single colour. Diary, garden, and film, multiply the occasions of probability that no thing represents another, nor annihilates itself in succumbing to another meaning.

10Diary, garden, and film have in common a refusal of image and of narrative. For image and narrative most efficiently deprive things of their particularity. “Film”, Jarman comments, “is a language in collision with the word” (Smiling in Slow Motion 248).

I decided to make Blue without images—they hinder the imagination and beg a narrative and suffocate with arbitrary charm the admirable austerity of the void.

11And the particularity of colour seduces him again and again:

Wednesday 25th November: My nurse Mun, who is Japanese, brought me a beautiful book on colour, with exquisite illustrations.
I sit here in my Japanese work overalls, indigo-blue. Mun read the characters: ‘plum tree valley’. Blue is the colour of Japan. I noticed this before anything flying over the blue-tiled roofs of Tokyo. There is no word for blue in Japanese. (Smiling in Slow Motion 198, 265).

12Throughout Jarman’s diary it is the rhetoric of particular things, so well tolerated by the diary form, which counterbalances the pressures of public rhetoric, the implications of words, and the certainty of death. The beauty of things is that they are on neither one side nor the other in this battle that “you can’t win”. Things, because they are particular, can be queer and difficult to the extent that they resist interpretation.

Derek Jarman at Dungeness: photo by Howard Sooley

13In response then to the question—How can things be beautiful, more than moments lost in the ambient noise of the here and now—I will propose, as a working hypothesis, six criteria that may be met within a text:

  • The thing is particular (it must be this thing, and not just an instance of its kind).
  • The thing is familiar (though it may surprise and alarm us here and now).
  • The thing is unremarkable (no heroics are allowable).
  • The thing is not a function of the narrative (no allegorical consistency explains it).
  • The thing calls into question its necessity (for it is a momentary and local event).
  • The thing detains the gaze (at least someone, in spite of the respectable injunction that it is rude to stare, cannot take their eyes off it).

14The attack upon beauty during my working life, within the humanities, has been driven by ethical and political imperatives. Beauty, it has been assumed or argued, is an instrument of inequalities in its attribution of value, seductive in its corruption of judgement, oppressive and exclusive in its socially privileged standards of taste. During the last few years, however, a number of critics, both of literature and of the arts in general, have boldly declared that “Beauty Matters”, and that “Beauty Is Back” (Zeglin Brand 1-10]. Essays and monographs have multiplied: Elaine Scarry, Alexander Nehamas, Dave Hickey, Denis Donoghue, and Umberto Eco, have asserted a defence and display of beauty. Exhibitions, such as those curated since 2000 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and at Avignon, have declared themselves under the overt banner of beauty. And anthologies, such as that published by Bill Beckley and David Shapiro under the title Uncontrollable Beauty: Towards a New Aesthetics, are available in the shops. These new defenders of beauty aim to break up a consensus frankly acknowledged by T. J. Clarke: “we all hate the beautiful so much” (Clarke 167). Nor is it easy to hate the poor beauty of particular things that is especially answerable to an observation in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: “Beauty, powerless and helpless, hates understanding, because the latter exacts from it what it cannot perform” (cited in Donoghue 24).

15If we allow that beauty is back and that beauty matters, it is not with us in quite the same form that it left. Essays on the return of the beautiful have tended to concede (as the younger Wilde, Baudelaire and Yeats did not) the ethical primacy of the good and the true, and to place beauty in the service of these respectable mentors. We can gather that much from the title of Elaine Scarry’s apologia, On Beauty and Being Just. The two chapters that constitute this slim volume respond to ethical demands: the first chapter is “On Beauty and Being Wrong”; the second “On Beauty and Being Fair.” Scarry makes beauty respectable with a luminous appraisal of what may happen to those who are lost in admiration of it. To notice beauty in a person or a thing, in a garden or a painting, is (she writes) to become adjacent, that is to “cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us” (Scarry 112). Iris Murdoch’s 1967 essay “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” is a key support for Scarry’s argument. For in that essay Murdoch had allowed that it is the most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ and that is what is popularly called beauty” (cited in Scarry 112-113). Scarry’s conclusion is persuasive:

A beautiful thing is not the only thing in the world that can make us feel adjacent; nor is it the only thing in the world that brings a State of acute pleasure. But it appears to be one of the few phenomena in the world that brings about both simultaneously: it permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to exparience extreme pleasure, thereby creating the sense that it is our own adjacency which is pleasure-bearing. This seems a [...] precondition of enjoying fair relations with others. (Scarry 114)

16Alexander Nehamas contrasts Scarry’s defence of beauty “because it makes us just” with that of Dave Hickey whose defence is aimed against the morally therapeutic institutions of the academy, and at museums in particular. Hickey’s defence of beauty appears to be more scandalously the shameless one, “because it gives us pleasure.” However Nehamas finds both to be in “uncanny harmony” when Hickey conceded that “the language of pleasure and the language of justice are inextricably intertwined” and placed the phrase “art and democracy” as the subtitle to his 1997 collection of essays Air Guitar (Nehamas 393-403). Hickey is simply more demotic than Scarry: both make beauty useful to the good and the true.

17Denis Donoghue’s defence of beauty is unsympathetic to its adoption by any ethical and political considerations. “It seems to me a poor defense of beauty to isolate it and then make it an instrument in the advance of other values” (Donoghue 172). He allows that “we judge the moral quality of a society by its consideration for those who are ill or otherwise in need. Law, medicine, and insurance are more urgently necessary than art galleries and concert halls” (Donoghue 174). Donoghue’s interest is in the way we speak when we speak about beauty, and for him that which makes beautiful objects distinct and apart from ethical considerations is the dynamism of their formal execution. He is impressed by Irving Howe who, after a lifetime’s commitment to the demands of socialism, confessed in the face of his delight in Balanchine’s ballets, that “there are kinds of beauty before which the moral imagination ought to withdraw” (cited in Donoghue 8).

18It is this judgement that is closest to Derek Jarman’s contest on behalf of a sexual utopia of bliss: to seek a means that forces the moral imagination to withdraw, something it is now loath to do in the media and in the academy. There is one ground, however, on which Jarman and all these defenders of beauty agree: particularity. In Scarry’s words, “Beauty always takes place in the particular” (Scarry 18). For Nehamas and Hickey a yearning for beauty does not “go beyond what is standing before us” (Nehamas 402). And Donoghue insists that beauty demands, first of all, a sense of what is intrinsic (Donoghue 172).

19The staccato rhythmic structure of Jarman’s diary, Smiling in Slow Motion, is a continual oscillation between the public space of work and illness (film studio, vernissage, doctors’ waiting room, a ward of St Bart’s hospital) and the private space of writing a diary. There is also an oscillation between the public force of the media and a range of private domains that include: the intimate and casual world of friends (Saturday 11th April: “The sun shone on and on, Gingerbit’s hair and the gorse bushes shining as red and gold as can be. We took photos; everyone complained about the Guardian. HB cooked a leek and bacon pie”, Smiling in Slow Motion 113-114); moments of realised love (Monday 13th April: “HB says I slept peacefully”, Smiling in Slow Motion 114); the onset of his blindness (Monday 24th August: “A blind hospital worker with a white cane walks past, she is smiling”, Smiling in Slow Motion 202); intimate asides addressed to an implied reader (Monday 11th January: “How many times I’ve stopped to touch my inflamed face even while writing this page”, Smiling in Slow Motion 290). Public and private interrupt each other. The garden is unfenced, almost zero-landscaped, a theatre for found objects, subject to the hazards of climate and the salt sea wind, walked over, worked over, photographed, robbed and befriended by passers-by. Intimate friendships spill out into public Street marches and a small defeat for a friend Sara, dismissed by the BBC for contracting a lesbian novel as Book of the Day, are more important than large debates in shattering, for Jarman, the myth (sponsored more by Women’s Hour than The Sun) that we live in an open society (Smiling in Slow Motion 311):

Monday 19th April: It’s six and quiet. The Sun [phoned,] followed by the Standard who were slightly apologetic. I could feel they were just gathering news—so strange to be rung up and asked if you are dying when you could well be. (Smiling in Slow Motion 333)

20Singular rare privacies do exist, however, and it is here that the particularity of beautiful things is imprinted minutely upon the text:

Monday 29th June: I worked in the garden till eight and then came in as the sun was too strong. I planted two of the anchusa that Anya brought and moved a couple of clumps of sedum. The garden has come back to life as the curry plants and viper’s bugloss have taken over from the poppies and the cornflowers. Walking about I discovered a pure white bugloss, the only one I have ever seen. I’ve tied a bag around it to collect the seeds. (Smiling in Slow Motion 158)

21The materiality of this moment depends upon context but lies always apart, separated from the words that name the context, those strange names (anchusa, sedum, bugloss), words that are superseded by something that is less nameable because it is “the only one I have ever seen”. The single flower, as casual and beautiful as it is singular, provokes a careful intention to replicate it: to have it happen again.

22No less with a singular plant than with his study of colour, Chroma, Jarman works to impress upon the spectator the materiality of appearance. In Chroma it is the materiality not only of pigment, but also of the tools the painter uses.

All colour smells of turpentine and rich linseed oil pressed from the pale blue flax fields. [...] Death hangs around the brush—pigs’ bristle, squirrel, sable, and the canvas prepared with rabbit skin glue (Chroma 4).

23Jarman is hostile to artworks that encourage spectators to forget what paintings are made of. He targets, for example, Kasimir Malevich who in 1919 had provided for his canvas White on White a sublimating commentary.

I have transformed myself IN THE ZERO OF FORM and dragged myself out of the rubbish-filled pool of academic art. I have torn through the blue lampshade of colour limitations, and come out into the white. I have conquered the lining of the Heavenly, have torn it down and, making a bag, put in colours and tied it with a knot. Sail forth! The white, free chasm, infinity is before us. (cited in Chroma 13)

24Jarman in response reads in Malevich a lesson, a lesson in the contingency of a painter’s materials, a caution against a modernist pretension to infinite newness on display in White on White:

The chemistry of the paint with which Kasimir painted his famous picture was as old as pigment. I doubt that he used titanium, which was only just discovered; perhaps he used zinc oxide, a mere one hundred years old. It’s most likely he used lead oxide which stretched back to the antiquity he despised. (Chroma 13-14)

25For Jarman colour is one of many things that materialise in paintings. The irreducible materiality of pigments is the historical density and limit of visual art.

26In order to generalise my question—how can these things be beautiful—and to dramatise the conflict between particularity, on the one hand, and narrative or ideology or sublimity, on the other, we might well revert to the past, on the eve of modernity. There is something particular, familiar, unremarkable, unnecessary, worth gazing at—and therefore beautiful—in a painting T. J. Clark describes as the first episode in the history of modernism, Jacques-Louis David’s Marat assassiné, 1793.

J.-L. David, Marat assassiné Paris, Musée du Louvre

27In the left hand lower section of David’s canvas there is a patch in the sheet his body lies on. It is one of many things figured in the painting, but it is also unlike all of them. True, it shares with other things (such as the two letters) a rectangular form. One letter, which Marat holds in his hand, is from Charlotte Corday. The other, which lies beside him, he had been writing to a widow whom he wishes to assist because (the letter tells us) her husband has served the revolutionary nation. The rectangular forms include also the slip of paper money (a five assignat note which, Marat’s letter explains, was intended for the widow), and a plain wooden box that supports these items. All these things are written upon. Other objects complete the narrative: the black cup for ink, the two quill pens, and the stained knife. There is the weighted tilt of Marat’s body, the slit that leaks blood, his gentle face. And there is the relatively enormous empty space behind, formless were it not for the containing rectangle of the picture’s frame.

28And there is the patch.

Detail, Marat assassiné

29Unlike the formless background space, the patch is a simple rectangle, but unlike other rectangles, the letters or the slip of paper money or the box, the patch is not written upon. It is a blank, although its stitched edges and its reinforced overstitching are exactly figured: it too is a thing made.

30The pointed quill pens and the pointed knife mimic one another, red staining, black writing and blotting. The patch is clean. White on white. It is clean, or almost clean, out of history. All the other items are defined by history and participate in a logical rendering of an ideologically consistent narrative. The public display of this painting in October 1793, in the courtyard of the Louvre, placed in theatrical perspective a set of thematized images, which project one history of the Revolution composed within Marat’s assassination.

31But there is the patch. The patch can be read as a metonymy for Marat’s ascetic household economy and, therefore, of his incorruptible status. Marat, the patch may signify, did not throw out a torn sheet. He repaired and re-used it. Just as he does not own a writing table, but recycles for his use a packing case. But the patch cannot be defined by history as the other objects are. It remains apart, to one side, lateral, adjacent, unnecessary, almost always overlooked. The eye of the spectator can rest here for a moment from history and then return to the determining objectification of events. It is not, as everything else in the painting is, shaped by an intention according to which a particular narrative and a historical process are one and the same. Not arbitrarily different, but (under the slightest of pressures) casual, material, private, the patch remains a thing. And, we can go so far as to say, that the patch (an unremarkable rectangle of stretched linen) laconically parodies this spectacular canvas of David, with all its stitched-up consistencies.

Detail, Marat assassiné

32Those thematic consistencies are indeed remarkable. For David’s Marat assassiné is the only painting within the Western tradition that represents money as a sign of virtue. There is a consensus among western painters (from the hideous portrayal of bankers in Holbein the Younger to those of Thomas Nast) that money is a sign of usury and meanness. Western traditions of painting coincide with that “Western moral tradition [that] displays an astonishing unity and solidarity in the uneasiness and mistrust it evinces towards money as the medium of exchange” (Pocock 103-104). David’s painting is extraordinary because it represents within a classical tradition money as asceticism, as benevolence, as social welfare, and justifies both David’s and Marat’s membership of the committee charged with maintaining the value of the revolutionary currency, the assignat.

33The patch, outside and apart from the deadly flurry of inky notes at the centre of the canvas, relieves some of the weight of ideological intention. It is not quite the punctum, that unpremeditated moment of unremarkable accident which, according to one view, photographs make possible (Barthes). The patch in Marat’s sheet is an intention of David. Yet David has reckoned with the patch in some casual domain no other object of the painting can visit: the domain of merely particular things. The spectator’s eye may rest from its responsibilities upon the patch, again and again, and on that painted surface find it beautiful. The beauty of the patch depends upon its relative difference: and its difference is the lightness of its ideological burden.

34It is my argument then that things allow us access to the beautiful only when those things are primarily apart from, not a part of, the narrative in which they nevertheless occur. The beauty of things imprints itself within the text under the pressure of a contradiction: between the apparent logic of the narrative and a certain refusal of that logic by the narrator. The balance in David’s Marat assassiné, between ideological instruments and a mere thing, is far more weighted in favour of instrumentality than might ever be the case in Derek Jarman’s writings. Nevertheless, in both David and Jarman a thing may be seen to be beautiful because it is not amenable to being understood in that instrumental light. Story, politics, sex, and more than all these the immediacy of death, are all a part of the architecture that is necessary to frame and to display the poor thing of beauty, although the weight of the architecture and the weight of the thing may vary, as they do here in Jarman’s garden and David’s crime-scene. The apparently unmotivated presence of things, separateness within a sequence of interpreted signifiers, provokes an awareness of what is material. Such things are never dues or cues or messages arranged in symmetry. The beauty of particular things is their almost casual illumination of the fact that the real is likely to be taking place, not in the text’s compelling narrative, but contingently and elsewhere.



Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981.

Beckley, Bill, and David Shapiro (eds), Uncontrollable Beauty: Towards a New Aesthetics. New York, Allworth P, 2001.

Clarke, T. J., Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. New Haven, Yale U P, 1999.

Donoghue, Denis, Speaking of Beauty. New Haven, Yale UP, 2003.

Jarman, Derek, Chroma. London, Vintage, 1995.

—, Smiling in Slow Motion. London, Vintage, 2001.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignty of Good (1970). London, Routledge, 2001.

Nehamas, Alexander, “The Return of the Beautiful”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Volume 58, no 4, Fall, 2000.

Pocock, J. G. A., Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2002.

Scarry, Elaine, On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1999.

Zeglin Brand, Peg, Beauty Matters. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2000. (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Volume 57, n° 1, Winter 1999).

Indice delle illustrazioni

Legenda Found object from Derek Jarman’s Garden, Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley
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Legenda View of Garden with Dungeness Power Station
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Legenda Derek Jarman at Dungeness: photo by Howard Sooley
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Legenda J.-L. David, Marat assassiné Paris, Musée du Louvre
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Legenda Detail, Marat assassiné
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Legenda Detail, Marat assassiné
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The Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies National University of Ireland, Galway
Professor of English à la National University of Ireland, Galway. Il est l’auteur de Language, Music, and the Sign (Cambridge UP, 1998) et The Dead (Cork UP, 2001). Il a également édité les Occasional, Critical and Political Writings de James Joyce (Oxford UP, 2000).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2007

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