“Cézzane's Doubt” by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Cézanne’s or Balzac’s artist is not satisfied to be a cultured animal but assimilates the culture down to its very foundations and gives it new structure: he speaks as the first man spoke and paints as if no one had ever painted before. What he expresses cannot, therefore, be the translation of a clearly defined thought, since such clear thoughts are those which have already been uttered by ourselves or by others. “Conception” cannot precede “execution.” There is nothing but a vague fever before the act of artistic expression, and only the work itself, completed and understood, is proof that there was something rather than nothing to be said.

The above is a passage from “Cézzane’s Doubt” that made very clear to me an idea that had previously been very fuzzy in my head. We can compare the quote above with another one from Marcel Duchamp’s “The Creative Act,” which I read a few weeks ago:

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond space and time, seeks his way out to a clearing.

If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.

I previously hadn’t really understood Duchamp’s statement because it wasn’t clear to me how an artist could make something without being aware of how he or she was making. I recognized that the idea of an artist as a medium was an interesting one to think about, but couldn’t grasp how it could actually be.

That I wasn’t able to grasp this idea (which was first presented by an artist) firmly until it was repeated by a philosopher might be very fitting for the sentiment in these two statements. In any case, it’s a very useful way for thinking about the contributions of Cézanne, often referred to the father of modern art. When we think about the impact of Cézanne’s work and how it paved the way for an entire new way of thinking about art, it’s only reasonable that he was often troubled with an inability to express how he saw the world.