Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

‘The Father’s No’

Comment contributed by Clare O’Farrell, March 2004.

This admittedly difficult passage is one of my favourites and I have had a problem with the way it has been rendered into English for some time. I have extensively modified the existing translation here. I have tried to provide an alternative version. I haven’t provided the French original on this page, but have given the reference.

French Original
Michel Foucault. (1971). ‘Le “non” du père’. In Dits et Ecrits vol I. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 192-5.

Published English Translation
As a Christianized Europe first began to name its artists, their lives were accorded the anonymous form of the hero, as if the name could only adopt the colorless role of chronological memory within the cycle of perfect recommencements. Vasari’s Vite sets as its goal the evocation of an immemorial past, and its proceeds according to an ordained and ritual order. Genius makes itself known from infancy, not in the psychological form of precocity, but by virtue of its intrinsic right to exist in advance of time and to make its appearance only in its consummation. Genius is not born, but appears without intermediary or duration in the rift of history; similar to the hero, the artist sunders time so as to reestablish its continuity with his own hands. The manifestations of genius, however, are accompanied by a series of vicissitudes: one of the most frequent episodes concerns the passage from misrecognition to recognition. Giotto was a shepherd sketching sheep on a rock when Cimabue found him and paid homage to his hidden majesty (as the prince in medieval tales, living among peasants who adopted him, ‘is suddenly recognized by a mysterious mark). An apprenticeship follows this experience, but it is more symbolic than real since it can invariably be reduced to the singular and unequal confrontation between the master and his disciple – the older man thought he was giving everything away to a youngster who already possessed all the older man’s powers. The clash that ensues reverses their relationship: the child, set apart by a sign, transforms the master into a disciple, and the master, whose reign was merely a usurpation, suffers a symbolic death by virtue of the inviolable rights possessed by the anonymous shepherd. After Leonardo da Vinci painted the angel in the Baptism of Christ, Verrochio abandoned his career and, similarly, the aging Ghirlandaio withdrew in favor of Michelangelo. The artist has yet to attain his full sovereignty; another secret test awaits him, but this one is voluntary. Like the hero who fights in black armor, his visor covering his face, the artist hides his work and reveals it only upon completion. This was Michelangelo’s procedure with the David as it was with Uccello’s fresco above the gates of San Tommaso. Finally, the artist receives the keys to the kingdom, the keys of Demiurgy. He produces a world that is the double, the fraternal rival, of our own. In the instantaneous ambiguity of illusion, it takes its place and passes for it – the monsters painted by Leonardo on the roundel of Ser Piero are as horrifying as any found in nature. Through this return to nature, in the perfection of identity, a promise is fulfilled: man is freed, as the legend recounts that Filippo Lippi was actually liberated on the day he painted a supernatural resemblance of his master.

In this fashion, for the artist, a relationship of the self – to itself was tied up in the interior of the exploit that the hero could never experience. The heroic mode became the primary manifestation – at the boundary of the things that appear and their representations, for oneself and for others – of the singleness of approach to the truth of the work. This was nevertheless a unity both precarious and ineradicable, and one that disclosed, on the basis of its essential constitution, the possibility of a series of dissociations. Among the most characteristic were: the “distraught hero” whose life or passions were continually in conflict with his work (this is Filippo Lippi who suffered from the torments of the flesh and, unable to possess the lady whose portrait he was painting, was forced to “stifle his passion”); the “alienated hero,” losing himself in his work and also losing sight of the work itself (plainly Uccello, who “could have been the most elegant and ori ginal painter since Giotto had he devoted to human and animal figures the time lost in his studies of perspective”); the “misunderstood hero,” scorned by his peers (like Tintoretto who was driven away by Titian and spurned throughout his life by the Venetian painters). These avatars, which gradually traced the dividing line between the artist’s deeds and the deeds of heroes, give rise to the possibility of an ambiguous stance (maintained through a composite vocabulary) which embraces both the work and what the work is not. The space cleared in the decline of heroism, a space whose nature was suspected by the sixteenth century, and one that our present culture cheerfully investigates in keeping with its basic forgetfulness, is ultimately occupied by the “madness” of the artist; it is a madness that identifies the artist with his work in rendering him alien to others – from all those who remain silent – and it also situates the artist outside his work when it blinds him to the things he sees and makes him deaf to even his own words. This state can no longer be understood as a Platonic ecstasy that protects him from illusion and exposes him to the radiant light of the gods, but as a subterranean relationship in which the work and what it is not construct their exteriority within the language of dark interiority. Given these conditions, it became possible to envisage the strange enterprise we call the “psychology of the artist” a procedure always haunted by madness even when the pathological dimension is absent. It is inscribed on the beautiful heroic unity that gave names to the first painters, but as an index of their separation, negation, and oblivion. The psychological dimension in our culture is the negation of epic perceptions. If we hope to understand the artists of the past, we can only do so by following this diagonal and illusive path on which the older, mute alliance between the work and the “other” of the work whose tales of heroic rituals and immutable cycles were commemorated by Vasari is at once caught sight of and lost.

In keeping with our discursive understanding, we have tried to construct the language of this unity. But is it lost to us? Or so fully incorporated in other discourses, in the monotony generated by discourses on “the relationship of art and madness,” that is nearly impossible to unravel? This unity makes possible such discourses of reassessment (I think of Jean Vinchon) and misery (I think of Jean Fretet and many others). At the same time, it is constantly occulted, deliberately neglected, and scattered through these repetitions. It lies dormant within discourse and forced by it into stubborn oblivion.
Michel Foucault. (1989). “The father’s ‘no'”. In J. Faubion (ed.), Aesthetics, method and epistemology. New York: New Press, pp. 8-11. Translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, slightly modified.

Alternative Translation
When Christian Europe first began to name its artists, it gave their existence the anonymous form of the hero, as if the name could only play the pale role of chronological memory within the cycle of perfect rebeginnings. Vasari’s Vite sets itself the task of recalling the immemorial past, and it follows a prescribed and ritual order. Genius makes itself known from childhood, not in the psychological form of precocity, but by virtue of its intrinsic right to be ahead of the times and to only come to light fully fledged. Genius is not born, but appears without intermediary or duration in the rupture of history. Like the hero, the artist breaks time apart in order to put it back together with his own hands. This appearance of genius, however, is not without incident: one of the most frequent problems is the episode of misrecognition/recognition. Giotto was a shepherd and was sketching his sheep on a rock when Cimabue saw him and paid homage to his hidden royalty (in medieval tales, the son of kings, living amongst the peasants who have adopted him, is suddenly recognized by the grace of a mysterious mark). An apprenticeship follows, which is more symbolic than real being reduced to the singular and always unequal confrontation between the master and the disciple – the old man thinks he is giving everything to the adolescent who already possesses all. From the first clash the relationship is reversed: the child, marked by the sign, becomes the master of the master, and symbolically kills the latter, because the master’s reign was merely a usurpation, and the shepherd without a name has inviolable rights. Verrochio abandoned painting after Leonardo painted the angel of the Baptism of Christ, and the aging Ghirlandaio withdrew in his turn, in favor of Michelangelo. But access to sovereignty imposes yet further detours. The artist must pass through the further test of secrecy ‚ but this time it is a voluntary test. Like the hero who fights in black armor, his visor lowered, the artist hides his work and reveals it only upon completion. This was what Michelangelo did with his David and Uccello with the fresco above the gates of San Tommaso. Then the keys of the kingdom are handed over and they are those of Demiurgy. The painter produces a world that is the double, the fraternal rival, of our own. In the instantaneous ambiguity of illusion, this world takes its place and has the same value as our own. On the roundel of Ser Piero Leonardo painted monsters whose powers of horror were as great as any found in nature. And in this return, in this perfection of the identical, a promise is fulfilled: man is delivered, as Filippo Lippi, according to the legend, was really liberated on the day he painted a supernatural resemblance of his master.

The Renaissance had an epic perception of the artist’s individuality. This perception conflated already archaic figures of the medieval hero and Greek themes of the initiatory cycle. On this boundary appeared the ambiguous and overloaded structures of the secret and of discovery, of the intoxicating force of illusion, of a return to a nature that is basically other, and of access to new land which is revealed to be the same. The artist only emerged from the centuries old anonymity of epic balladeers by taking on the forces and the meaning of those same epic values. The heroic dimension passed from the hero to the one whose task it had been to represent him, at a moment when Western culture itself had become a world of representations. The artistic work no longer took its sole meaning from being a monument which figured like a memory in stone across the ages; it now belonged to the legend it had once commemorated. It was itself a “heroic deed” because it conferred eternal truth on men and on their ephemeral actions and also because it referred to the marvellous order of the artist’s life as its natural birthplace. The painter was the first subjective inflection of the hero. The self-portrait was no longer a furtive participation by the artist in the corner of the painting, in the scene he was representing. It became, at the very center of the painting, the work of the work where the beginning joins the end, in the absolute heroic transformation of the very one who allowed heroes to appear and to continue to exist.

With this heroic deed, the artist thus established a relationship of the self to the self that the hero could never experience. Heroism became the primary manifestation – at the frontier of what appears and what is represented – as a way of doing only one thing, for oneself and for others, with the truth of the work. A precarious yet ineradicable unity. It is a unity which opens at its very foundation, the possibility of all dissociations. It allows for the “distraught hero” whose life or passions were continually in conflict with his work (this is Filippo Lippi tormented by the flesh who painted a woman whom he couldn’t have, to “quench his passion”). Then there is the “alienated hero,” who loses himself in his work and also loses sight of the work itself (for example Uccello, who “could have been the most elegant and original painter since Giotto had he devoted to human and animal figures the time lost in his studies of perspective”). There is also the “misunderstood hero,” rejected by his peers (like Tintoretto who was driven away by Titian and spurned his whole life by the Venetian painters). These avatars, which gradually traced the dividing line between the artist’s deeds and the deeds of heroes, give rise to the possibility of an ambiguous stance where it is a question at one and the same time and in a mixed vocabulary of both the work and what is not the work. Between the heroic theme and the expanses in which it is lost, a space opens which the sixteenth century begins to suspect, and which our own era cheerfully investigates in keeping with its basic forgetfulness. It is the space which is ultimately occupied by the “madness” of the artist; it is a madness that identifies the artist with his work in rendering him alien to others – to all those who remain silent – and it also situates the artist outside that same work rendering him blind and deaf to the things he sees and even to his own words. It is no longer a matter of that Platonic ecstasy which renders main insensible to illusory reality in order to place him in the full light of the gods, but of a subterranean relationship where the work of art and that which is not it formulate their exteriority in the language of a dark interiority. At this point, that strange enterprise we call the “psychology of the artist” becomes possible ‚ an enterprise always haunted by madness even when the pathological dimension is absent. It is inscribed against the background of that fine heroic unity that gave names to the first painters, but it also measures their separation, negation, and oblivion. The psychological dimension in our culture is the negation of epic perceptions. And we are now committed if we want to question what an artist was, to this diagonal and illusive path which allows mere glimpses of that old, mute alliance between the work and the “other than the work” whose ritual heroism and immutable cycles were once recounted to us by Vasari.

Our discursive understanding tries to restore the language of this unity. But is it lost to us? Or so fully incorporated as to become inaccessible to us in the monotony of discourses on “the relationship of art and madness”? In their repetitiveness (I am thinking of Vinchon), in their poverty (I am thinking of the good Fretet as well as many others) such discourses are only possible because of this unity. At the same time, this unity is constantly masked, repulsed, and scattered through these repetitions. It is a unity which lies dormant within these discourses and forced by it into stubborn oblivion.

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