Dr Ben Ware (Editor of Painting, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis) is the Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King’s College London, as well as the Philosopher in Residence at the Serpentine Galleries, London. This is the second half of Ware’s essay on how we can interpret Bacon’s art philosophically.
After the existentialist reading of Bacon (outlined in part one of this essay), the second dominant philosophical approach to the artist’s work is the one put forward by Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze‘s central thesis, outlined in his 1981 study Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation [Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation] is, in some respects, a simple one. Its basic outline is given on the first page of the Preface to the English edition:
Francis Bacon’s painting is of a very special violence. Bacon, to be sure, often traffics in the violence of a depicted scene: spectacles of horror, crucifixions, prosthesis and mutilations, monsters. But these are overly facile detours, detours that the artist himself judges severely and condemns in his work. What directly interests him is a violence that is involved only with colour and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction of expression.
Deleuze here thus distinguishes between sensational violence (the spectacle of mutilations, monsters and screams) and the violence of a sensation (associated with colour and line), which, for him, is the real concern of Bacon’s art. The paintings, he argues, reprising Bacon’s own claims, bypass representation and act directly and violently upon the spectator’s ‘nervous system’ (a phrase which he repeats no less than ten times during the book).
Deleuze’s Logic of Sensation seems to do two things at the same time: it applies the author’s own ready-made philosophical system (consisting of concepts such as ‘invisible forces’ and ‘body without organs’) to Bacon’s painting at the same time as it rehearses Bacon’s own claims about his art and aesthetic outlook. The effect can, at times, be disorienting. Who, exactly, is speaking at any given moment? Is it Bacon or is it Deleuze? Is philosophy leading art or is art leading philosophy? Perhaps most problematic is Deleuze’s suggestion that all of Bacon’s paintings operate according to the same logic of sensation. By focusing exclusively on what we might call the affective dimension of Bacon’s works, Deleuze fails to give an account of just what it is that actually compels our interest in them: why do they continue to mean something to us as paintings, not just as things that might (or might not) provoke a certain neuroaesthetic response?