Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


The history of representational arts is crowded with manifest attempts to converge with the real, yet each attempt sets its object elsewhere. Renaissance artists for instance, developed modes of representation so that the picture would look more and more like the three-dimensional world (by using perspective, foreshortening, occlusion, etc.) Impressionism modified the object of representation fixing on the changing appearance of nature in face of the subjective gaze of the observer; even the Abstract has its own desire to represent an object here identified with the forms abstracted from nature itself.1 It can be said that at times when art strives to represent nature as accurately as possible, its representational function becomes similar to that of science. No wonder that Kuhn as well as art theorists, find it instructive to link art to science in those periods and contexts where artists' main drive lies with representing knowledge about reality and about the observer's perception of reality as objectively as possible. Despite this important mimetic drive prevalent in many artistic periods, anti-realists meet little objection when claiming that realism needs no factual basis to achieve its effect (while in science such claims always raise objections).
To conclude this section, note that realism, both in its instantaneous and its historical dimensions, needs to be realistically interpreted in order to make sense. The next section will illustrate the idea that such a realistic interpretation inevitably produces incommensurability in every representational act.

Realism in art: a case of incommensurability

Realism in art, like scientific theories, is an attempt to represent the world of objects as accurately as possible. The artist who aims to grasp something of a real object (whether a physical, an abstract or a mental entity) must carry out his artistic project while believing in there being an object prior to artistic production. It is precisely this belief that is responsible for a discrepancy between the pronounced mimetic intention of artists during specific artistic periods and the difficulties met when an actual representational mode is developed to satisfy a mimetic drive. This discrepancy shows that without fixing on a specific object of representation, that is, without aiming at realism, representation would have introduced a problem neither to its practitioners nor to its theorists. It is this discrepancy, born out of the very drive at mimetism, that can be explained and analyzed in terms of the notion of incommensurability as presented in this paper. In order to show in what sense the mimetic drive to represent the real always faces a representational discrepancy with its object and that the work of art can hence never grasp its object in any exhaustive manner, I will briefly concentrate on one example: the case where the realist drive aims at the representation of the other's consciousness or mind by literary "mimetic" means.


1. This is how Piet Mondrian conceives of abstract art: Mondrian, Piet (1994). Natural Reality and Abstract Reality (An Essay in Trialogue Form, 1919-1920). New York: George Braziller. [RETURN]

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