There’s no way to write about Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of art – or theory of art, or conception of art, or however you want to categorize it depending on context – without sounding dirty. So let’s agree that there are going to be double-entendres all over this discussion and move on.
As he writes in What Is Philosophy?, there are three ways to capture the diversity of existence in human activity. He calls these ways chaoids, then never talks about them again because the phrase comes in the conclusion of his last book.
What does that mean for art? It means that art captures and preserves all the varieties of sensations in complex media in a pure manner. This even includes narrative art like fiction and non-fictional writing, and the stories of movies and television series. It includes the aural arts like music, singing, and audio narrative.
Examples of visual arts like painting and sculpture are easy to embed in a written blog post, but Deleuze would never be so reductive about something like this, and if you think he is, you’re misunderstanding his writing.
What could Deleuze mean by ‘pure’ in this case, though? That art preserves sensations in all their varieties in a pure manner. Think about it this way.
If you want to build most things, you have to add something – some material, some representation – to the event that you want to preserve. A monument is the preservation of an event, whether it’s a person’s life or a moment in history. But monuments themselves never preserve the event itself.
Artistic works don’t have the same ambition. You can interpret the hell out of an artwork, looking at what it signifies and represents, of course. Entire intellectual industries are built on this kind of interpretive work, for better or worse. But the art itself doesn’t exist for the sake of what it means or represents.
Even in reading and narrative, meaning becomes sensory, and meaning only returns through more complicated critical readings and interpretations. Interpretation is a separate contribution to the sensory assemblage of an artwork – an assembly of sensation.
His explanation of this in What Is Philosophy? actually did fit with the way I’ve made art – my stories, novels, scripts, and plays. As I outline a story, conceive of a character, interpretation and appearance play back and forth in my mind as I think about the possible meanings of what I’m assembling.
But ultimately, a character is an assemblage of action and thought, and a story is an assemblage of events, whether of plot or of more dynamic character collision. As a machine of interlocking components – characters, plots, settings, imagery – my fiction works in different genres and media build their own logic, their own structure.
An artwork is a machine. Its reality is its functioning, the dynamic interlocking of all its components. Meaning comes later, if at all. Its existence is brute. There-ness. Enter the gallery. Pick it up. Press play.