Barry Schwabsky, “Can an Unfinished Piece of Art Also Be Complete?,” The Nation 14 April 2016

In his recent book Dividuum, the philosopher Gerald Raunig hypothesizes that current technology offers the possibility of a new “type of interactive and activating writing.” Raunig imagines a future in which data about reading is harvested from e-book readers to “recursively affect the production of books, of texts altogether.” Writers would be required to revise, abridge, or otherwise recast their now perpetually unfinished books in accordance with data about the “democratically” determined preferences of readers. All books would be crowdsourced, and writers would become the slaves of “an endless feedback loop and chain of ever new versions.” The modernist idea of “the open art work,” Raunig warns, could become a “Sisyphean nightmare.”

What Raunig envisions is a far cry from the “definitively unfinished” works that we’re familiar with from history. On the one hand, there are those that have come down to us in an unpolished or fragmentary state—because of, say, the artist’s untimely death, their inability to envision a way to proceed past a certain point, or simply the intervention of chance. On the other hand, there are works that are deliberately unfinished or unfinishable, including all instances of what Umberto Eco characterized as “the open work” in his in his 1962 classic of the same name — works whose very structure depends on indeterminacy, most obviously the aleatoric music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Luciano Berio. (Strangely, Eco doesn’t mention John Cage.)

Other art forms have their own variants, such as Nanni Balestrini’s novel Tristano, in which the order of the text varies in every printed copy — its publishers claim there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations—or Stan Douglas’s video Journey Into Fear (2001), in which a 15-minute film loop is synched to bits of dialogue that are scrambled and recombined by a computer in combinations that play out for more than six consecutive days. Such works may not be literally infinite in scope, but no one reader could ever experience all their various instantiations. They evoke what might be called a kind of mathematical sublime, to borrow Kant’s phrase.

The question of finish was crucial to the emergence of modernism. The gauntlet was first thrown down by Manet, whose works in the 1860s were declared by critics to be unfinished — in fact, not even paintings but mere sketches. Similarly, a few years later, Whistler was accused by the Victorian sage himself, John Ruskin, of doing nothing more than “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” But Baudelaire had already anticipated the howls of Manet’s and Whistler’s denigrators when he observed, in 1845, “that in general what is ‘completed’ is not ‘finished’ and that a thing ‘finished’ in detail may well lack the unity of the ‘completed’ thing.” From Manet and Whistler (or, indeed, from their predecessor Corot, who was the object of Baudelaire’s defense) until today, artistic modernism has been inseparable from the critique of finish. And this change in painting and sculpture occurred in tandem with similar developments in the other arts. Consider the difference, for example, between the omniscient narrator of the high Victorian novel and Flaubert’s style indirect libre, which depends on the reader making implicit connections and intuiting unmarked shifts in viewpoint; or, in the 20th century, the rejection by modernist architects of ornament—which had long been considered indispensable to a building’s finish—as something that, as August Perret remarked, “generally conceals a defect in construction.”

For all that, the force of the unfinished was far from a discovery of the 19th century, as Kelly Baum and Andrea Bayer point out in the catalog for “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” the exhibition they’ve curated with Sheena Wagstaff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (…) They cite the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who observed in the first century “that the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures…are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts.”

(…) Such truly unfinished works are rare in the second act of “Unfinished,” as are those whose status is ambiguous, where it’s unclear whether they were finished or not—as in the case of the van Eyck Saint Barbara or some of the Turners — or are obviously incomplete yet somehow unaccountably powerful, leaving viewers in doubt as to how they could have possibly been brought to any greater degree of completion. These are the cases in which art presents the problem of finish as an irresolvable epistemological question.

(…) It’s hard to say. Is Walter Benjamin’s unfinished, perhaps unfinishable Arcades Project a quagmire or a posthumous triumph? I can’t help but think of a line that has haunted me for years, though I’ve forgotten the name of the book where I found it. Somewhere, the Mexican mystery writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II speaks of the absurd marriage between a book that will never be written and the man who will never write it. One’s involuted relation to the work is that of a debt in the worst sense: “the relation of a debtor who will never finish paying to a creditor who will never finish up using the interest on the debt” (the words are Gilles Deleuze’s).

The Met Breuer’s treatment of the unfinished is itself unfinished, because the true saints or heroes or victims of the unfinished cannot be seen there or anywhere. They are its unknown masters. In his 1988 novel The Botanical Garden, Jean Frémon — a remarkable writer who also happens to be a gallerist — introduces a minor character, one Pinto, a painter “who managed to pass unseen.” I assume that, like many of the book’s other characters, Pinto is based on a real person. “The devotion he bore for painting was equaled in intensity only by the hatred he expressed for his own production,” Frémon writes.

As a general rule, his passion for self-denigration led him to destroy any painting which might be able to pass as finished and to retain only those in which failure was manifest, the only ones toward which he showed a little interest and affection. “It’s because,” he said, “they still need me, they call to me, they keep me alive, they are still waiting for the inner light, a simple stroke, perhaps a single brush-stroke.”
There were thus hundreds of them, arranged standing, in staggered rows, leaning against one another, and he wandered among them all day murmuring, “A stroke, just a stroke.”

Later, toward the end of the novel, Pinto is given a posthumous retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art. That, I suspect, is the wholly invented part of his story.


“When I begin to think at all I get into states of disgust and fury at the way the mob is going on (meaning by mob, chiefly Dukes, crown princes, and such like persons) that I choke; and have to go to the British Museum and look at Penguins till I get cool. I find Penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.”
John Ruskin, letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 4 November 1860