THE SIGNATURE AS CULTURAL TECHNIQUE
No one yet has written a cultural history of the signature. The formal variety of signatures is indicative of something more than shifting styles in the ways in which artists declare their identities. A signature that makes itself autonomous abandons its meaning as an affidavit of authorship and grows dependent upon its environment. In the resulting network of interrelationships, its meaning necessarily grows evanescent.
Writing and Image
The authority and authenticity of a signature are never to be found in its fixity or constancy, and reside instead in its variations. None of us ever sign our names in any always identical way, or in ways that invariably result in indistinguishable visual images. A person who counterfeits a signature attempts to copy it, which already on its own makes the counterfeit identifiable (though only, of course, on condition of being in possession of the original that served as its model). On the other hand, anyone who takes account of this fact while attempting to counterfeit a signature, and who therefore varies an available model, falls back into the patterns that typify their own calligraphy, and not the other’s, and that difference can be graphologically identified. The authenticity of signatures is never a question of their precise repetition of one another, and thus of presenting themselves as identical; authentic signatures of the same hand always slightly differ from one another. They are allowed to change to the extent that the changes are seen to be circumscribed by the framework of their similarity. If they move too far afield from the canon of the writer’s calligraphy, they lose validity as means of identification. All in all, they move within a set of vague outlines that characterize a personal handwriting, while never being overly precise. Anyone who writes their signature ten times running on a piece of paper will immediately note the variations, or, in other words, the surprising and unintentional differences that any given instance presents. Still, however, they couldn’t be called variations of the “real” signature. There in fact is no such thing. Such a thing would amount to the one true expression of an individual personality. “The unique identity of a sign,” no matter if a single letter of the alphabet or the entirety of a signature, “cannot be seen to rest on its own concrete physiognomy, but only on questions of positioning, which in turn is subject to characterization through operations of exclusion.”1 More simply put, a signature isn’t recognized on the basis of its own Gestalt, but on the basis of its difference from every other.
It’s more or less at puberty that we make our first attempts to arrive at a personal signature that as greatly as possible boasts the appearance of adulthood. Even in cases where a handwriting style changes in the course of a life, the form of the person’s signature remains more stable, or changes at a slower speed. It’s only with the increasing dementia that at times accompanies advancing age that the once achieved contours of a personal identity will finally disappear. And since signatures are clearly a vehicle for the expression of personal identity, art history might do well to draw an analogous conclusion. When the first signatures since antiquity began to appear in late Medieval and early Renaissance painting, the artists restricted themselves to inscribing them onto frames. They respected the pictorial space of their saints, and would never have made so bold as to share it, as though on an equal footing. It was only with the growth of the notion of the importance of the artist’s personality—in the period that followed the Middle Ages—that signatures became important. In the Allerheiligenbild that Albrecht Dürer painted in Vienna in 1511, the artist’s figure stands amidst the heavenly host on earth and points a finger at a sign. One reads: “ALBERTVS · DVRER · NORICVS · FACIEBAT · ANNO · A · VIRGINIS · PARTV · 1511 AD.” He is present twice over: by way of the image of his body, and also by way of his name. Some eight decades previously, Jan van Eyck not only had written his name on his work, but on various occasions had appeared in his paintings as an image reflected in a mirror.2 The painter as viewer thus gave witness to his personal presence by way of a pictorial signature.
Owing to its detour through language, handwriting stands apart from direct visual experience. But even though immediately visible, the difference between the painter’s handwritten signature and the signature style of his hand still remains hard to explain. Line is employed for the representation of a ceaseless range of things, and they vary from painting to painting; a calligraphic signature simply presents itself. It’s a question of different ways in which an artist is effectively a presence: in the one case, the artist leaves behind a trace that refers to a plethora of widely ranging phenomena; in the other, the artist is only concerned with exhibiting his/her name. But in any given case there is also the question of what one sees one’s name to imply, or of the individual’s concept of identity and individuality. Since the eighteenth century, and increasingly so since the nineteenth, signatures have taken on ever more importance. Within the nineteenth-century cult of genius, the signature came to be taken for granted as a sign by which the artist is recognized. That era’s trompe-l’oeil genre of illusionistic painting is marked not only by the ruses it plays on the viewer’s visual and linguistic habits, but also by the legerdemain of turning the artist’s signature into part of the painting’s imagery. William M. Davis inserted an envelope addressed to himself into the side of the stretcher (the painted stretcher) of his Canvas Back, of ca. 1870; John Peto tacked a similar letter onto his Office Board of 1904, where his name appears in block letters; John Haberle shows us a blackboard on which a signature previously written in chalk has been erased, but still remains readable.3
And though twentieth-century artists were all quite quick to learn—beneath the sign of the notion of the avant-garde—to attribute importance to rapid development and personal innovation, none of them found it important constantly to vary their signatures. Art history knows no artist to have run the risk of signing every painting with a different form for the assertion of authorship. The level of awareness that permits such a thing has only appeared within the last few of decades. Such things have become a part, on the one hand, of artful and playful ways of looking at the role of the artist; but they’re also they’re involved, on the other, with the ever more pressing question of the security of sending information and of making bank transfers by way of the internet.
The decisive rupture in the tradition of the artist’s signature can’t be precisely dated. But two examples can clarify the issues involved. On December 1, 1959, Marcel Duchamp wrote to Daniel Spoerri: “Dear Spoerri, many thanks for your lengthy letter and its good news. You’ll find enclosed some forty ‘original’ signatures which you can either attach with glue, or with a fairly hot clothes-iron, applied for about ten seconds. Please keep me informed And all the best both to you and to Tinguely.”4 These forty signatures were written on a strip of white cloth, and were intended for the signing of Spoerri’s edition of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. Though the signatures themselves were “originals,” they were destined to be attached to objects that the artist himself had not produced, and which indeed had been made at a location where he hadn’t been present. The signature’s achievement of freedom from the work is also indicative of a shift in the notion of authorship. The decisive factor no longer lay in personal handicraft, and instead became a question of the paternity of a concept. Marcel Broodthears furnishes another example: on several occasions he created a pedestal bearing repeated examples of the monogram “M. B.” and then signed it “M. B.” In other words, he made an accumulation of his signatures, and then signed it as a work. There are also several other works of the 1960s and 1970s in which he chose by means of mirrors and the myth of Narcissus to declare his axiomatic understanding of what it meant to him to be an artist. Both of these examples stress the importance and meaning of the artist’s signature, but they also speak of its autonomy. The important thing is no longer the artist’s work, and lies instead in the artist’s activity: it’s the artist’s identity that becomes the source of art’s potential and virtuality.
At present we’re much concerned with the security of signatures, since we’re fearful of identities being tampered with on the internet, and shoppers have to be protected from fraud against their bank accounts. Identity today is no longer confirmed by handwritten signatures, but by way of electronic signatures. Physical presence, and calligraphic proof it, are supplanted by personal, secret codes. There are also ever more people who possess an electronic signature, as unequivocal identification of the sender of e-mail messages. Such practices will soon be no less taken for granted than the telephone is today, where partners in conversations are recognized only by their voices. No one needs to see the other speaker in order to be able to believe that he/she is simultaneously present and absent. Even when the person with whom you’re talking is present before your eyes in the course of a video conference, they may very well be on another continent.
The electronic signature is a digital equivalent of the handwritten signature and makes it possible, by means of asymmetrical coding techniques, to certify the authorship (authenticity) and integrity (freedom from subsequent manipulation) of a document. Such a “signature” consists of a combination of signs that derive from the author’s secret, personal key. And with the help of a “public key,” anyone can check its authenticity. Such signatures, generally, are also combined with a function that furnishes a guarantee that the document on which they appear has not been tampered with. An electronic calculation—a “fingerprint”—is generated by way of an asymmetrical function and indelibly attached to it. “Asymmetrical” means that the information provided with the document allows the fingerprint to be checked and authenticated, but not to be deciphered or reproduced. The “fingerprint” itself is “signed” with the author’s secret key. One can thus be sure that the document hasn’t been tampered with, as well as in no doubt about the identity of its author.
Whether or not this closes the security gap, and whether or not passwords and secret numbers (PIN/TAN) that don’t betray their legal proprietor’s identity can guarantee the fraud-free use of the system itself remains controversial. Just as with secret numbers, access to electronic signatures can be passed from person to person. Still today there are no clear norms on the reliability of electronic messages, whereas the law is quite sure of itself with respect to orders by letter or fax. Electronic messages entirely alone (like a simple e-mail) are only very slightly to be trusted, since the messages can be subject to manipulation while on their way from sender to receiver. It may prove possible to fill this gap through the combination of electronic signatures with some sort of biometric seal. So, from this point of view, the classical handwritten signature remains an excellent security measure within the notion of the use of their electronic substitutes. The current tendency in Germany—with a view to the revision of the pertinent laws—is to recognize the parity of electronic and handwritten signatures on condition that the electronic signature be based on a certificate from a recognized provider of certification services. This implies giving up the notion of the authenticity of signatures, so it thus becomes absurd to imagine the replacement of handwritten artists’ signatures with electronic ones.
The signature signals the artist’s completion of the work. And that opens the road to other problems. Has the signature or monogram truly been made by the artist him/herself? Has this personal seal of authenticity been applied to the artist’s own work or merely to the work of his/her workshop? Signatures are generally the least artistic part of an artwork, yet seem to bear more weight in the market than an expertise. Moreover, a painting or sculpture has no need of a signature. A signed painting differs from an unsigned painting only by virtue of the latter’s lack of something that has nothing to do with its visuality. It’s only seldom that the visual components of a signature are integrated into the work itself, as in the case of Joan Miró. A painter’s style may change, and the works in the painter’s oeuvre may come to be highly different from one another, but the signature must always report the artist’s name, and will change more slowly than the artist’s style. The signature comes at the end of something, indicates a subsequent point with respect to the creative process, functions as a seal that shuts off the flow of the act of painting, which in turn dams up behind it. The signature points to the name of the painter as the painting’s source, but can also be condensed and reduced into a sign. So a scribble, a scrawl, two letters, or a monogram can perform the same function. Even in the Middle Ages, when the individual stood in the background with respect to the painting’s sacred images, architecture at least knew the use of stonemason’s monograms with which workers signaled the conclusion of their efforts. Here too, the sign had a different dimension than that of the work constructed. A sign or a series of writen words always steps forward from its background. They’re always read in a wholly different way: they arise from a background and point away from it.
In affixing a signature to a work of art, the artist signs a contract. If the signature is lacking, the artist can’t be held responsible for the quality of the work. The work’s market value increases if this sign is present, and drops if it isn’t. No matter how certain of authorship the recipient or buyer of a work may be, there can be no certainty, if the work is to be sold, that the next prospective proprietor will be willing to do without such proof. The artist performs this operation personally and by hand, and it counts as important in the visual arts, even while making no difference in the worlds of literature and architecture. For an architect to sign a building is of no real importance, since the existence of the work of architecture is already clear from its value as an object of use, and without concern for the fact or absence of personal handicraft. Yet insistence on personal handicraft can at times be found. It’s still today to be found, for example, on what was once, in 1958, the Austrian pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, and now is known to the Viennese as the Zwanz’gerhaus: the building displays a large-scale signature of its architect Karl Schwanzer, in neon light on a dais on the lawn at the side of its entrance. When an architect signs a project, one sees that project as a drawing or a painting, and thus as belonging to the visual arts. Writers have no need to sign their manuscripts. They can limit themselves to affixing their names and a dedication to printed copies of their books on the occasion of specially programmed signing parties during reading tours arranged by their publishers. And that act does nothing to make the text more true or authentic: the handwritten signature is simply proof of a personal encounter. Imagine that! You see it right there in the book! So and so has actually met such a famous (or thoroughly unknown) author.
Nothing has been changed in any of this by fictive talk of the demise of the author. No one today would have much hesitation about calling Foucault’s bluff, referring to the words with which he closed his famous Les mots et les choses: “We can be certain that the human being will disappear, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea.”5 Up until the end of the sixteenth century, according to Foucault, issues of similarity were of crucial importance. The distance we have traveled from all such thoughts can already be seen in the sheer absurdity we’d find in the question of the degree of similarity that exists between an artist and the artist’s signature. Yet, a graphologist could indicate numerous facts that lead away from superficial forms and off into the depths of similarities. “Similarities, in all their secrecy, must be signaled on the surface of things. A visible sign must announce invisible analogies. The system of signatures inverts the relationship of the visible and the invisible. Similarity was the invisible form of what it is in the depths of the world that gives things visibility.”6 And that precisely was the problem. If everything can be somehow similar to everything else within the world of invisibility, the notion of similarity comes to be deprived of its present-day (and apparently limpid) meaning. But we can also see it the other way around. In the old “doctrine of signatures,” or “theory of signatures,” similarity is understood as the outside manifestation of hidden relationships. “Because whatever lies inside, works steadily towards its revelation; and that is the language of nature, by virtue of which every thing speaks from within its qualities, always revealing itself on its own.” (Böhme).7 For example, in the period previous to a chemistry that can explain the active principles of medicines, one looked for orientation in the formal, exterior qualities of a remedy, saying that “nuts are good for the brain,” or that earthworms heal gout, since they twist and turn like the gout-contorted limbs of those afflicted by this disease.
A history of “the literal”8 indicates that minuscule details of pictorial style continued in as late as the nineteenth century to hold the value of signatures. Every brushstroke provided authenticity, recognizability, and authorization no less than a signature might. But whether the drippings of Jackson Pollock can be understood to constitute a signature seems doubtful. 9 It’s much more the other way around. It’s not that writing became painterly imagery, but that the calligraphic painting of the 1950s took on graphic and painterly qualities. In entirely general terms, the signature too consists of touches or brushstrokes. Awareness of the signature as artwork was thus preannounced.
Gottfried Bechtold’s Signatur 02
Nothing about this work in any way syncs with our presuppositions. Handwritten words in relief, as a sculpture of a height of 2.88 meters and 14.18 meters long, descriptive of nothing, but presenting itself as a signature written on something of which the authorship otherwise hadn’t been claimed. Such a gesture might easily be seen as polemical. An artist here inscribes his signature onto the work of others—architects, construction teams, engineers—who in turn remain anonymous, like craftsmen of the Middle Ages. From this point of view, Bechtold seems to appropriate something illicitly, but also to transform something. A weathered, featureless wall becomes a tableau with a claim to a status as art, and suddenly springs to the eye. Previously unobserved, it’s now the field of an art-critical discourse which will attempt to clarify its content and operations in ways that no longer allow it to be seen as a provocation.
These apparently handwritten words are no signature. They’re no act of writing at all. They constitute instead a monumental representation of a signature. There’s nothing here to sign. The forlorn landscape of the naked mountains and the wall of the Silvretta dam don’t come together into any coherent image: it’s only in the light of the signature that such an image is perceived. In photos, this natural setting has the appearance of a staged landscape which someone’s name has turned into an example of Land Art. But it’s only when seen on this smaller scale that the signature seems to function as the sign of an appropriation. A person who signs something, assumes responsibility for it. The contract must then be respected, the check covered, the document or ID card must effectively fulfill its function, the picture must be the artist’s own. Reasonably enough, one signs no book one has not authored. An autograph is a record of personal presence, of a meeting; it’s a haptic gesture.
Here, however, things stand a little differently. This signature is no subjective proof of identity, and instead is the theme of a sculpture. Nothing, in fact, has been written here. We’re looking, instead, at a fact of manual craftsmanship, at something that has been shaped, cast, cut, polished and mounted. It could also be a wholly different signature. Sometimes artists don’t sign their work at all; or like Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and various others, they may sign it with a stencil, as only second-hand proof of their personal hand. Great stars have managers or even machines that are capable of setting their handwritten names onto “autograph” cards, precisely as though they were originals. Other artists like Andy Warhol (for money) or Ben Vautier sign their names on commission, or on anything at all. Marcel Duchamp, on having been asked to sign a poster, is known to have given the laconic reply, “I’ll be happy to give you a cancellation.” Luis Kamnitzer, on the other hand, never signed a catalogue, since a rubber stamp with his signature was in any case available for purchase at the price of 1€. But still he remarked ironically, “The signature is the soul of art.” In the 1960s he sold his signature by the centimeter, like sausages.
A faked signature is worthless, unless it isn’t recognized as such, or constitutes a work of art. In the 1980s, in the age of appropriation—and of so-called appropriation art—Michael Schirner, who declared advertising to be art, had a show in Dusseldorf where he exhibited twenty-one oil-on-canvas paintings showing signatures and datings in the hands of famous artists.10 No one, surely, imagined that Mondrian, Bracque, Picasso and Miró had themselves painted their signatures onto these canvases. Schirner had previously employed these signatures on a poster that promoted Dusseldorf as “the art city.” The concept is similar. The assertion that Bechtold has signed the dam can be judged to be meaningful or taken for nonsense. He might also have chosen and represented some other signature. No question of fraudulence would have had to arise. The law prohibits and punishes the falsification of signatures, but not their representation, if not in the case that a signature is also a registered trademark.
Naturally enough, Bechtold didn’t write his signature on the face of the dam; and he didn’t print, scratch, or in any other way inscribe his handwriting on the wall. Yet, in spite of its size and weight it possesses the personal form of a signature, since it’s a representation of handwriting. If it were simply a signature, it would have no meaning, or would simply witness the artist’s once having been there, and his personal identification with the text or image he signed. The actual form in which we find it gives it a different meaning. Its enlargement and transposition into another medium, marked as well by durable materials, bring about something else that veers beyond the level of reality found in writing. This shift in meaning can hardly be a question of the artist’s making his signature universally visible, as if from that point forward he had assumed responsibility for this desolate landscape, or perhaps for the safety of the dam.
In explaining the meaning of Signatur 02, we lapse back into old modes of thinking. We can’t just leave it alone with seeing that something’s there on a wall, without asking why and for whom. The meaning of the work doesn’t lie in the relief itself, but in the circumambient context of artistic conventions, and in the icononlogy of artistic creation in the times in which we live. The site has been transformed by the fact that this thing is found on it, and this is true for everyone who knows how to read, and whose eyes happen to fall on it. Our inability to leave something simply on its own, asking no questions and allowing a simple description to suffice, is highly connected with the twentieth century’s history of representation. We’re led out of silence and into exegesis by the fact that what we’re looking at is more than simply a signature: it’s a monumental representation. The sculpture spreads a net in all directions: a net that can clarify the sculpture’s functions, and which also captures attention.
Gesture and Rhetoric
Writing and speech are governed by different laws. The spoken word is heard, the written word is seen. They are linked, however, by the fact of bearing meaning. Yet meaning too depends on many factors, which can also be questions of representation. The written signature is something very different from the ephemeral ring of a spoken name. Calling out the artist’s name in this particular place would have to be documented differently, perhaps with a video, but it wouldn’t be possible to screen such a thing at the site itself. What’s decisive, moreover, doesn’t lie in the fact that a written signature remains a permanent presence, whereas a spoken name resounds only in the moment of its being voiced. Speech is governed by the laws of rhetoric. But it’s only exceptionally that writing reconciles with rhetoric. Here’s an example. Jacques Derrida gave a lecture in 1996 at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. And he had agreed to sign books at the end of it. Most people, of course, came up to him with a copy of one of his own books. But one of the members of the audience, Ramin Gabriel Schor, observed a gentleman who approached Derrida with a copy of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Derrida at first refused to sign the book, and it was only on finding himself in any case pressed to do so that he took the book and wrote in it. But the name that appeared in Derrida’s handwriting was “Immanuel Kant.” A gesture of modesty here conformed to the rhetoric of courtesy. If it’s true, as Isocrates maintained, that “the proper word is the surest sign of proper thinking,”11 it could here be said that the properly chosen but improperly written word was no sign of thinking at all, but the sign of a polite reply to an impolite request. Derrida neither pretended to be Kant, nor placed his own name on the title page of a book he had not written. The inverse alternative of writing “Derrida” in Kant’s calligraphy would be a theoretical possibility only for Kant himself, in a condition of freedom from time and space. There is also an essay in which Derrida explores the signature in the light of parasitology.12 But putting that science into practice wouldn’t be so simple as signing one’s name in a book, and especially in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
And in the following case, there’s no exact indication as to where the signature in question was being placed, but apparently it brought up the notion of “ashes to ashes.” “Just before the end, at the bottom of the last page, it seemed as though you’d sign it with the words, ‘There are ashes here.’ I read them, it was very simple, and all the same it was clear to me that they remained beyond me: that the turn of phrase, without at all waiting around for me, withdrew into its secrecy.”13 This cryptic reference leads us toward the relationship between signature and mortality. A person who writes his name has laid the basis for its subsequently being read, and that thought is more pregnant with handwritten words than with printed ones. Derrida, moreover, here adhered—and without forethought—to the virtutes, or classical Latin rhetoric’s highest principles of style: puritas (correct speech), perspicuitas (clarity of meaning), aptum and decorum (suitability of content and purpose), ornatus (oratorical ornament) and above all brevitas (the avoidance of everything superfluous).
Rhetoric without speech is closer to gesture, and of gesture on the part of rhetoric. But writing steps back from this complex scheme, and leaves us instead with “the gesture of writing” (Flusser). So, writing from such a point of view is an invasive rather than constructive gesture: a scratching away of surfaces, in which any number of factors are essential (surfaces, tools, signs, meaning, spelling rules, grammatical systems, semantics, and content). Writing remains impossible without a recognition of the magical power of words and language. A dialectic comes into play between the word and the self, and it has to be seen as different from any simple registration of spoken words. “Words oppose themselves to writing in ways quite different from how they oppose themselves to speech…. They have to be cut to what one wants to express.”14 And where could that be more evident than with the steel cut-outs of Signatur 02? It makes no difference that the work is a representation of handwriting: it’s in any case a monument, which, literally read, means the memory of the writer’s entry as an individual into history. Its “expression,” moreover, takes greater strength from the pressure of the water behind the face of the dam, which is also the support for this moment of virtuality. The work has been positioned in such a way that the signature appears to result from the pressure behind it, though not at all presenting itself as an image of the force exerted against the wall. The implication, here, isn’t that the landscape achieves its signature through the artist; it’s rather that the landscape has produced that human being, or indeed, in general, all human beings. So, it all amounts to something more than simply inscribing one’s name somewhere, in a guest book, or in a book by Immanuel Kant. And it’s all quite different from those notorious rubber-stamps that imprint a signature everywhere, like a superfluous ex libris.
Reflections on “the gesture of writing” led to the choice of this representation—this image—in the course of the process of creating the work. The process of imprinting the signature played a central role in the making of the work, and without it the reproduction of the form would not have been possible. There’s a paradoxical relationship between imprints and power. The imprint process “constituted the technical premise that allowed a document or a reproduction to be taken as a guarantee of singularity, or of a central organization that rests on the uniqueness and authenticity of a single individual. On the one hand, direct contact (the imprint process) is proof of the power of that unique authority; on the other, the manufacture of coins (and the ability to set them into circulation) proves that this power can endlessly reproduce itself—or, in any case, for as long as a matrix exists—and, above all else, that it doesn’t go lost or disappear in the acts of dissemination which it itself has authorized.”15 Didi-Hubermann is speaking here of the minting of coins under Caesar. And even though our own concerns have nothing to do with the striking of precious coins that disseminate the image of Caesar, they entail artistic equivalents. What there were questions of great quantities are here a question of enlargement; and written words replace an image. That’s the source of the possible protest. The provocation lies not only in the signature on a work that the artist himself did not create, but also in the matrix (in any case spatially circumscribed) of pretensions to uniqueness and power.
When art historians look for the meanings of things, they employ the methods of iconology. But to what degree is the “logic of the image” (the literal meaning of “iconology”) capable of revealing meaning? How does the meaning of a particular form come into existence? Is it there from the start, and only demand to be recognized? Is understanding it a question of superseding one’s own particular way of thinking, in order to be able to grasp another? Do various different forms demand that we step beyond our prejudices in always different and suitably pertinent ways? And how can one be sure in any given case of having found the proper way of thinking? Since when, moreover, have people been asking themselves about meanings that extend beyond their personal horizons of perception? Art historians don’t really raise such questions about “the meaning of meaning.”16 Such problems don’t seem to take us very far. In semantics, one would really like to have banned the word “meaning” already decades ago from our vocabularies,17 just as brain researchers in the 1990s dispensed with the notion of “ consciousness.”
Iconology is a theory of meaning that has furnished art history with useful results even when one has refused to adhere to the schemes and principles of Erwin Panofsky, the twentieth century’s most famous art historian. An important preliminary principle for iconology lay in the awareness that historical shifts reveal themselves not only in changes in ideas, but also in changes in concepts of space. Panofsky thus wrote on the subject of “perspective as symbolic form.”18 Artworks of various epochs and cultural contexts didn’t come into existence in the spaces in which their interpreters live. In other words, meaning rests on the representation of facts as seen within the terms of various worlds, contexts, and spaces. And, for as long as we’re able to presume the existence of a unified notion of space, the question of shifts in meaning does not arise. Signatur 02 experiences a widening of its horizon of meaning by way of the site on which one has chosen to erect it. The necessary connection of a theory of meaning to the problem of the stability of the image in various different contexts achieved visibility not so much in art history or philosophy as in biology.
A year after Edmund Husserl’s Vorlesungen über Bedeutungslehre (Lectures on the Theory of Meaning) in the summer semester of 1908, Jakob von Uexküll published his book Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (The Outer and Inner Worlds of the Animals). The kernel of the “theory of meaning”19 he developed lay in the insight that there is no commonly shared space for all life forms. It’s much more the case that every life form is inscribed within a specific world, or habitation. In a different world of perception, every object undergoes a “transformation of meaning.” The environment of any given animal is thus to be seen as a closed and self-enclosing unit. Every object becomes transformed into a usable carrier of meaning, or is otherwise entirely ignored. The various inter-relationships of various environments—their symbiosis, antagonism, juxtaposition and interpenetration—allow the attribution of various meanings to any given representation. A signature on a drawing is something quite different, naturally enough, from a representation of a signature of the face of a dam.
Von Uexküll’s “interpretation of the spider’s web” has become quite famous. It makes an astonishing assertion. The spider’s web might also be described as a representation of the fly. No matter how unclearly defined the term “representation” may be, this is surely a conclusion that an art historian might be counted on not to reach. In formal terms, the spider’s web can’t even be seen as a representation of the spider, and even more certainly not of the fly. Von Uexküll was talking about functional interdependencies. Even though no spider has ever taken the measurements of the body of a fly, the size of the mesh of the spider’s web precisely corresponds to that order of size, just as the resistance of the strands from which it’s spun matches the momentum of that body in flight. These strands, moreover, are just fine enough to escape the vision of a fly, and thus to allow their victim to charge into its doom unawares. “In the spider’s environment, the spider’s web is a tool for the ‘actualization’ of the meaning of a ‘meaning-carrier’ (its prey). This ‘meaning-actualizer’ is so precisely tuned to the ‘meaning-carrier’ as to allow one to speak of the spider’s web as a true and proper representation of the fly.”20 Von Uexküll refers to the whole interaction of fly and spider and spider’s web as a comprehensive “meaning-program.”
The pursuit of meaning is a difficult undertaking, since meaning can’t be directly deduced from visible fact. This is also a source of perplexity for art historians, insofar as the pursuit of meaning always leads away from form: it moves out into the contextual environment, as Uexküll sees it; or in terms of the threefold levels of Panofsky’s iconology, “symbolic meaning” abandons the moment of “factual meaning” and sites itself instead in the sphere of “intrinsic meaning,” with all its questions of Weltanschauung. In von Uexküll’s “theory of meaning,” the spider’s web spans across the “functional circle” that links the “meaning-actualizer” (the spider) to the “meaning-carrier” (the fly), and neither can be said to coincide with the representation. “Meaning” mustn’t be seen as synonymous with the victim that’s trapped in the invisible image of itself instinctively created by the “actualizer.” In order to interpret the spider’s web, we must first of all see it as a representation at the center of a particular space. Meaning is no property that belongs to the fly, even though the spider’s web is its “true and proper representation.” But meaning is likewise no property that belongs to the spider which produces the web. Neither fly nor spider possesses a meaning that can be deduced from their rigorously established roles. The web possesses meaning not as an admirable formal structure, but as the image or representation of another form, of entirely different appearance, for which it was created, while nonetheless displaying no signs that directly betray its function. This procedure of interpretation doesn’t grow clear until we confront the unclear relationship between meaning and representation. The representation (the spider’s web) is the meeting place of two entirely different life forms: different in bodily constitution, weight, speed, and the radius of their respective environments. But when we see their aspects of meaning (as its “actualizer” and “carrier”) with respect to the representation, they fit together like a lock and key.
Signatur 02 first begins to take on meaning when one sees it as the representation of the feature to which it corresponds in the context of a “meaning-program,” and not directly as a representation of a signature. In metaphorical terms, it’s the representation of the victim which it aims to catch in the net that belongs to its functional context. That functional context is the art world, and the “victim” is the viewer of the work. If one remains within this terminology, the problem of the work’s interpretation grows quite clear. Just as the fly is unable to perceive the finely-spun spider’s web, the viewer isn’t apprised of the art world’s laws. We’re dealing here with how we think; and thinking, since Joseph Beuys, has become a form of “sculpture.” That’s immediately visible here: language transforms into writing, which in turn has been made into a sculpture.
The different implications of the available theories of representation went nearly unnoticed. One was concerned with the representation (the mimetic representation) of reality by way of art, the other with the representation of reality by way of language. Ludwig Wittgenstein waged a life-long battle in the cause of once again eliminating the relationship between representation and meaning which he himself had constructed in his famous early work, the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, of 1918. The linguistic philosopher’s theory of representation saw every name or concept as a representation of a fact. “We make ourselves images of facts.” (2.1) In his notebooks of 1914–16, we find the words (March 27, 1915): “The image can replace a description.” But the text of the Tractatus continues on to ask how this is possible, since “the image [too] is a fact.” (2.141). A solution for the problem can be found in the assertion that there must be something identical in the image and what it represents, “in order for the one to be able to be an image of the other at all,” (2.161) and what he sees that to be is their “form of representation” (2.17). But precisely what’s to be understand by “the logical form of representation” (2.2) remains unclear. Sympathetic critics maintained that the image’s status as a representation of something else is simply inherent to the concept of the image. The suspicion that this is in fact the case only when one is looking for meaning might come, however, from a sideways glance at the thought that von Uexküll’s spider web can be called a representation. For the early Wittgenstein, meaning and image couldn’t be separated from one another. The space of his theory was “logical space,” as opposed to von Uexküll’s environmental space, or to the space that Panofsky found in perspective. Language discovered its iconology in semantics and semasiology.
Words, names, and concepts first take on meaning by way of assuming the form (the magical form) of representations. Decades later, Wittgenstein was even to exasperate this notion: “‘The meaning of a word is what the explanation of its meaning explains.’ That’s to say that if you want to understand the use of the word ‘meaning,’ you should take a look at what one calls the ‘explanation of meaning.’” 21 He was then to cut this Gordian knot in two by no longer positing the word’s ability to function on “a logical form of representation,” but on its use, and finally on the notion of “sign.” A concept turns into nothing more than an indication of the object to which it corresponds (“that thing there”). “The concept of meaning derives from a primitive philosophy of language.”22 All the same, he embeds it into a space of action. “The meanings of words, what lies behind them, is of no concern to me in ordinary speech behavior. They flow along, and transitions take place from words to actions and from actions to words. No one thinks, while doing sums, if he is doing them ‘thoughtfully’ or ‘parrotedly.’”23 The transition from language to action and back again is constructed by the cultural framework. “A language game involves a whole culture.”24
Wittgenstein’s dramatic loss of faith in the representational function of words immediately impaired the search for meaning. He now became much more concerned with “family resemblances.” As an example, he mentions the comparison of language to a tool box in which various things are found, such as hammers, nails, screws, and glue. There’s clearly a difference between glue and a chisel, but in the context of the tool box they show a “family resemblance.”25
Meaning in von Uexküll’s biology is grounded in a space that’s tantamount to function, and thus has nothing to do with abilities of representation (based on mimesis or similarity); and in this context it was a far less endangered concept than in the logical space where Wittgenstein saw it as a direct linguistic image of things. He therefore attempted to remove it from his linguistic philosophy, and to replace it. Why couldn’t a word be simply a word attached a thing, rather than having to turn into a representation, so as then to be able to take on meaning? The retraction of the ambition to be able to explain the word-meaning relationship dissolved the notion of “logical space” and led to the postulation of word games where objects are simply pointed at, and where the games themselves are governed by the reciprocal establishment of mutual relations (glue and chisel).
So, there’s a usual sense in which Signatur 02, as an act of writing, may very well count as a “representation” (of a written signature). And as such it would derive its meaning, according to the early Wittgenstein, from having taken the form of a fact. A name is a representation of a fact; and this signature, from that point of view, would be a representation of the identity which the artist postulates. It’s simply that the form of the written words doesn’t reveal the appearance of the artist, even while standing in for his individuality. For the later Wittgenstein, all that remains is the somewhat helpless gesture of pointing. Like a child he plays in his tool box with meanings and says, “that one there!” The family relationship thus pointed out is in turn distinguished by its independence from formal similarities.
A person who interprets a signature will find good reason for despair. Since the search for its meaning is perilous. It shows itself to have no “intrinsic meaning” (as understood by Husserl or Panofsky), since the bridge between the visible phenomenon as name on the one hand and as concept on the other leads off like a web in all directions. The representation of a name is not the same as the representation of a family resemblance, which in any case we don’t perceive from our position as the “victim” of the work. It’s the viewers who come to be trapped by this invisible web. One could continue to play with the elements of this discourse without achieving any other result than the perception that signature and writing, artist and precarious site are indeed no “meaning-carriers” or “meaning–actualizers,” and instead set free a pertinent train of thought on historical premises and contexts. In other words, Signatur 02 is a representation of the artistic discourse on meaning. It’s as self-referential as an hermetic circle, but “writing, understood as a cultural technique, contains a dimension that’s anti-hermeneutic, since it encumbers interpretation.”26
Bechtold’s Signatur 02 is a sculpture and as such signs nothing. As a monumental representation of handwritten words, it shows its author to be an artist. Its meaning achieves a “this, there” since it reverses our understanding of the structure of a work as text. The name as text is the work.
1 Sybille Krämer: “Schriftbildlichkeit oder: Über eine (fast) vergessene Dimension der Schrift,” in: S. Krämer, H. Bredekamp (eds.): Bild–Schrift–Zahl, Reihe Kulturtechnik, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 2003, p. 163 ff.
2 Karin Gludovatz: Die Signaturen Jan van Eycks. Autorenschaftsnachweis als bildtheoretische Stellungnahme, doctoral thesis, University of Vienna, 1999.
3 M. L. d’Otrange Mastai: Illusion in Art. Trompe l’Oeil. A History of Pictorial Illusionism, Abaris Books, New York 1975.
4 Marcel Duchamp: Die Schriften, Band 1, Zu Lebzeiten veröffentlichte Texte. Übersetzt, kommentiert und herausgegeben von Serge Stauffer, Regenbogen-Verlag, Zurich 1981, p. 249.
5 Michel Foucault: Die Ordnung der Dinge (Les mots et les choses, 1966), Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1971, p. 462.
6 Foucault: op. cit., note 5, Part I, Chapter 2: “Die Signaturen” (“Les signatures,”) p. 56 ff.
7 Jakob Böhme (1575-1624): De signatura rerum.
8 Rainer Metzger: Buchstäblichkeit. Bild und Kunst in der Moderne, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne 2004.
9 Michel Butor: Die Wörter in der Malerei (Les mots dans la peinture, 1974), Bibliothek Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1993, p. 80.
10 Michael Schirner: Werbung ist Kunst, Klinkhardt & Biermann, Munich 1991.
11 Isocrates: Nicocles, 7, as quoted in: Gert Ueding: Klassische Rhetorik Beck’sche Reihe, Munich 1995, p. 23.
12 Jacques Derrida: “Signatur, Ereignis, Kontext,” in: Randgänge der Philosophie (FRENCH TITLE, date), Passagen Verlag, Vienna 1988, pp. 325-352
13 Jacques Derrida: Feuer und Asche (Feu la cendre, 1987), Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin 1988, p. 15.
14 Vilém Flusser: Gesten. Versuch einer Phänomenologie, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 1994, p. 38.
15 Georges Didi-Huberman: Ähnlichkeit und Berührung. Archäologie, Anachronismus und Modernität des Abdrucks, 1997, DuMont Buchverlag, Köln 1999, p. 43.
16 “The meaning of meaning” was the subject of the research of C. K. Ogden and J. A. Richards (1923) as well as of Hilary Putnam (1975), see also: Anatol Rapoport: Bedeutungslehre. Eine semantische Kritik, Verlag Darmstädter Blätter 1972.
17 “Meaning presents itself in language theory as one of the most complex, ambiguous, and hotly contested concepts.” Stephen Ullmann: Semantik. Eine Einführung in die Bedeutungslehre, 1962, S. Fischer, Frankfurt a. M. 1973, p. 67.
18 Erwin Panofsky: “Perspektive als symbolische Form,” 1927, in: Aufsätze zu Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaf, Berlin 1964, p. 99-167.
19 Jakob von Uexküll: “Bedeutungslehre,” in: J. v. U., Georg Kriszat: Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen. Bedeutungslehre. Mit einem Vorwort von Adolf Portmann und einer Einleitung von Thure von Uexküll, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 1970.
20 v. Uexküll, op. cit., note 19, p. 125.
21 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophische Untersuchungen, Werkausgabe Band 1, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Frankfurt a. M. 1995, p. 560.
22 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophische Grammatik, Werkausgabe Band 4, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Frankfurt a. M. 1984, p. 56.
23 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Bemerkungen über die Philosophie der Psychologie, Band 2, 603, Werkausgabe Band 7, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Frankfurt a. M. 1984, p. 322.
24 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Vorlesungen über Ästhetik, 1938, in: Cyril Barret (ed): Vorlesungen und Gespräche über Ästhetik, Psychoanalyse und religiösen Glauben, Parerga, Düsseldorf/Bonn 1994, p. 19.
25 Ludwig Wittgenstein: ibid., note 24, p. 9 ff.
26 Krämer: op. cit., note 1, p. 169.
Translation: Henry Martin