Research - Derrida and the frame. / by Ally McGinn

Ally McGinn (2016-17)  Painting Installation.  Mixed media. Size varies.

Ally McGinn (2016-17) Painting Installation. Mixed media. Size varies.

This blog has been primarily involved with the theory of research and defining my place in the wider context.

Now we get some actual content.

Choosing an order automatically adds a hierarchy, so I will disclose now - this subject was chosen to discuss first because we were given a lecture today by the amazing Robin Marriner, who features heavily in the bibliography for this post, about visual culture and the way we read images.
Robin's work in the realm of visual culture has been extremely influential to me over the last three years, and it was through him that I discovered the theories of Derrida, and their relation to the way we see artwork.

With no further ado, a brief overview of Derrida’s ‘parergon’ and it's implications for the reading and understanding of art, and how that information might be explored in the studio.


Jacques Derrida was a philosopher commonly known for coining and developing our current understanding of the word ‘deconstruction’. An extremely prolific theorist Derrida wrote about many topics; however, the focus here is on a term coined by Derrida to explore the frame in art.

Drawing from Immanuel Kant’s theories Derrida wrote ‘The Truth in Painting’, in which he coined the term ‘parergon’, to explain why when looking at the work the frame is part of the wall, and yet when looking at the wall it is part of the work. Refused by each to be considered as part of themselves the frame exists between the two, as a separate entity.

Derrida said about the parergon, “Neither work (ergon) nor outside the work (hors d’oeuvre), neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.”

The function of the parergon, then, is to create a framework that contextualises (and re-contextualises) what is being framed.

The parergon is both a literal framing or placement and a metaphysical concept that denotes context, both of which can be understood and used by the artist and the viewer.

Our metaphysical understanding of the frame can be taken as our understanding (or exploration) of meaning. We all interpret visual culture (any aspect of our culture perceived visually), based on our own knowledge or understanding. In Derridian theory, the meaning of the work is not intrinsic to the work, at least not completely.  

There are certain signs that exist in any work of art. However those signs are subjective, they can be interpreted.

Interpretation is a word that Derrida never used because it implies that there is a pure, or real, meaning to be found in each artwork.  There is no right answer in art, and there can be no single ‘real’ meaning, only varying readings, what we see and say to be there doesn’t exist without what we bring to it – a framework. That framework comes from things that are both external and internal to the work, and more importantly, the links between the two.

External to the work, in terms of the wider context, we find any other information that is not contained within the edges of the artwork. Because the existence of the artwork is so dependent on this information it follows that what we believe or define as external is, in fact, an integral part of the artwork.  Following this, we can see that no art can ever be autonomous.  The internal involves the invocation of the external and the external involves the reading of the internal.  Both exist, and it is only without either that true autonomous art could exist.

The moment you take something as ‘Art’ it is contained within the metaphysical frame of art context, connecting it to things outside of itself. The interior meaning (placed by the artist, object or material) and the exterior meaning (eg; wider context, the nature of art and the viewers perspective) are vital to the reading of artworks as ‘Art’. To see ‘Art’ we need the theory and the knowledge. It is only in the acknowledgement of the exterior that an artwork can be seen as more than a physical object, but as ‘Art’.


From this overview of the ‘parergon’ we can see some of the initial implications of this theory, and how it might impact the studio work.

Firstly, the exteriority of meaning is part of the foundation for the nomination of found objects as art. It is only through the frame of ‘Art’ can anything be ‘Art’.

Physically the frame is something involved heavily in painting, especially if the stretcher is considered a sort of proto-frame. In sculpture, the plinth can be seen as the primary frame, although only for certain sized works. With digital artworks, the edge of the screen visibly replicates the frame of the painting……..In all forms of art a frame is seen, even if (for example, with installation art) the frame is the gallery itself.

Conceptually this theory shows the importance of the viewer and their subjective view of the work. Once the artwork has been nominated and experienced the artist's intentions become balanced with the viewer's subjective understanding of it (where the argument of the most important is hotly contested - further reading - ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ Wimsatt and Beardsley)

Simply put - All artworks are surrounded by frames, both physical and conceptual, and those frames direct the meaning and understanding of the work.

Next post - more research! 



De Duve, T. (1998) Kant after Duchamp. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heywood, I and Sandywell, B. eds. (2012) The handbook of visual culture. London: Berg.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Marriner, R (2017) Meanings in Visual Culture. Research Methodologies module. Bath Spa University. 17th October 2017.

Wimsatt, W K and Beardsley M C. (1946) ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. The Sewanee Review, Volume, (54): Page 468-488. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.09.2016].