How whole need whole be?

The thing as a whole is what is interesting - Donald Judd - Gail Hastings Exhbiition Studio

When we read a review of a book or movie, we expect the reviewer to have read the entire book or to have seen the whole movie before passing judgment. If, instead, they pass judgment having seen only a fragment and, consequently, not knowing how that fragment plays out within the whole, then it is reasonable to disregard their judgment as ill founded.

Yet we nevertheless subscribe to newspapers and magazines that present reviews of the ‘best’ movies, books and art exhibitions — a comparative judgment based on a complete overview — when, similarly, this cannot be the case given the sheer magnitude of material any one reviewer is faced with, today.

There was, however, a time when this was possible. This, though, in literature at least, was over by the end of the eighteenth century due to an explosive expansion of production.

In Germany, alone, publications dramatically increased to 1,000 by the end of the eighteenth century, to multiply by 800% forty years later. This sheer velocity of production blew apart any attempt of a comprehensive review.

Having witnessed this exponential combustion, the German literary critic and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), turned to irony in his 1797 Kristische Fragmente to address what he described ‘the impossibility and necessity of a complete communication’. As Frederick Beiser explains:

The ironist feels that complete communication is impossible because any perspective is partial, any concept is limited, and any statement perfectible; the truth is intrinsically inexhaustible, defying any single perspective, concept, or statement of it. But he also sees that complete communication is necessary because it is only by postulating the ideal of the whole, which guides and organizes our otherwise blind and scattered efforts, that we approach the truth.

Symptomatic of modernity’s social alienation presaged by a rapid advancement of the industrial revolution, we see the ‘whole’, here, recognised as necessary, but forever lost. In its shadow, as a state impossible to reach, meaning is posited not in that which remains — art as fragment — but in that which is missing. Art is where it is not. The whole is mourned as an unattainable ideal.

This, however, is not the ‘whole’ of Hegel, nor the ‘whole’ of Donald Judd. For both the whole is not an ideal in the manner of a Platonic Form that is pure and immaterial. No. Instead, the whole is actual, attainable and ‘real’.

This, though, is not to say the ‘whole’ of a work of art is its empirical height, width and breadth. This, I would say, is the passive whole of a work of art, not its active whole, not that which makes it actual.

Nor is the ‘whole’ of a three-dimensional spatial work of art determined by the room within which it is seen (as is installation art). It is, instead, self-dertemining. It is determined by the manner through which it brings itself about as a whole. In this way, the whole for Donald Judd as a work of art, ‘asserts its own existence, form and power. It becomes an object in its own right’.

For Hegel, the actual whole is not the empirical dimensions or the resulting object where the ‘bare result is the corpse which has left the guiding tendency behind it’, ‘but rather the result together with the process through which it came about’.

Whatever is not a part of this process is not a part of what makes a spatial work of art whole.

With this we might better understand what Donald Judd means by ‘quality’ when he says ‘The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting’. It is this quality that is noteworthy of a work of art.

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