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Only Connect


Pleasure Ground

Only Connect 2

five exercises in aesthetics

Christophe Van Eecke

Lokaal 01

‘Verweile nur! Du bist so schön’ Goethe, Faust, Part II



‘Once I could speak joyfully of beautiful things, thinking to be understood; now I cannot anymore; for it seems to me that no one regards them. Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.’ John Ruskin

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction, 9 Chapter One: Better Living Through Art War and Resentment, 24 The Power of Vision, 34 Divine Substance, 39 The Therapeutic Fallacy, 43 Narrative Didactics, 47 Feeling and Form, 56 Virtual Spaces, 70 Fields of Vision, 80 Virtual Life, 90 Against Form, 98 Genius Redeemed, 104 Inventing the Human, 109


Chapter Two: Artworld Inc. Art Criticism After the End of Art, 122 Skirting Langer, 131 A Short History of the Avant-Garde, 140 Kondylian Combinations, 145 Art and Philosophy, 154 Beauty and Ugliness, 163 Killing Art, 169 Avant-Garde After the End of Avant-Garde, 177 Radical Chic for Chic Radicals, 184 Chapter Three: Getting Physicals A Body of Art, 193 From Performance to Concept, 199 Engaging the Audience, 204 Lethal Objections, 214 The Meating of Porn and Art on a Dissecting Table, 219 Do Androids Wank to Electric Wet Dreams?, 228 Mathesis Sexualis, 238 Scientia Sexualis, 243 Pleasure Machines, 251 Bodice Rest and Motion, 259 Moving Towards Stillness, 268 The Belly of a Dyslectic, 277

Chapter Four: Engaging The World Making the World, 289 Unmaking the World, 299 The Brutality of Fact, 304 The Quickening, 312 The Order of Things, 321 Dionysian Mysteries, 329 Cleansing Cleanliness, 339 Irreligious Rituals, 348 Lost in the Stars: A Materialist Manifesto, 354 Demonic Time, 357 Comes Undone, 364 Chapter Five: Frail Gazing Pathetic Fallacies, 371 Having the World, 378 Doubling, 386 Body Doubles, 389 Pictures Imperfect, 392 Scattergorising the World, 404 Optics of Desire, 410 Imagining Petals, 416 Living Memory, 422 Inner Space, 432 Magmatic Poetics, 441 Perchance to Dream, 445 Soft Sightings, 450 Cinechroma, 459 Gardens of the Underworld, 467 Into the Garden, 473 Bibliography, 482



This book takes its title from the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End (1910) and takes as its own epigraph a phrase from Goethe’s Faust that is meant to recall 8

Immanuel Kant’s idea of purposiveness without purpose in the experience of art. As such, the title really does say it all. It is the project of this book to present, in a series of interconnected essays, a philosophy of art that seeks to demonstrate how art is one of the primary ways in which human beings express their connectedness to the world. The book was developed out of a series of four essays written for the exhibition project Pleasure Ground at Lokaal 01 in Breda, The Netherlands, in the Spring of 2010. A brief look at this exhibition and the way the essays were linked to it will help explain the book, its structure, and its content. ——— Pleasure Ground was meant as an investigation of the relationship between an art institution and the artists it chooses to exhibit. Lokaal 01 made an engagement to support



the artists they selected in any way possible to realise their

far as to put their own body into play for their art. This essay

projects within the exhibition. But the exhibition itself did

dealt extensively with issues of body art and performance art.

not have a theme. There was no curator to decide what

The fourth essay tried to look out at the world through art:

the exhibition would be about. The idea was to have the

how does art mould the relationship between man and his

artists create a series of four presentations with the total

world? These four core questions came about very early in the

commitment of Lokaal 01. This way, the engagement implied

process, and as I started to sketch what the contents of the

in the relationship between institution and artists became the

essays should be it immediately became clear that the issues

main focus of the exhibition, which was really about a process

touched upon were huge. The possibilities for exploring these

and about questioning certain power structures inherent

topics were endless. But at the same time it was also clear to

in the artworld. Curators often have tremendous power in

me that many of these topics were linked to issues I had been

deciding how art will be presented, how it will be read, and,

addressing in essays published elsewhere. Hence, Pleasure

most importantly, which artists will be shown and which will

Ground offered an opportunity to bring all this material

not be exhibited. In the Pleasure Ground project, this power was

together in a more systematic form. And as soon as this was

surrendered to the artists themselves, who had to assemble

clear, the possibility of bringing the four essays together in

the presentations among themselves. My task as philosopher

book form naturally presented itself.

in residence at Lokaal 01 consisted in framing this exhibition

As soon as the overall idea for the essays and the book were

process with four essays that would investigate several

in place, I took the project and ran with it; a kidnapping

aspects of commitment or engagement in art. These essays

operation that was most graciously tolerated and even

were published in ThRu, the theoretical journal published by

encouraged by everyone at Lokaal 01. Engagement became the

Lokaal 01.

starting point for a series of philosophical explorations that

It soon became clear that the four essays would have to

gave me an opportunity to think through issues I had long

focus on four different aspects of engagement. The first essay

wanted to address. Once the project was underway, however,

approached the topic from the point of view of society at

there were only four weeks to prepare each new essay, which

large: what kind of moral commitments are required from

is alarmingly little time by any standard. The only reason I

artists? The essay focused especially on the supposed moral

felt it could be done was that much of the material I wanted

and social responsibility of the artist in society. The second

to incorporate was already present on my computer and in

essay dealt with the relationship between artists and the

my notes. To a large extent, writing the essays was a matter of

artworld at large. How do artists position themselves in

bringing together research that had been done in the previous

relation to the artworld and what kind of commitments does

years. Also, it was agreed that the four essays as published

that imply? The third essay looked at the most personal and

in ThRu would be temporary versions and that I would

intimate kind of engagement, dealing with artists who go so

afterwards take several months to edit them, to add material,


rearrange arguments, and do whatever I felt was required

helpful. But apart from that, feel free to pick and choose. Is

to mould them into a book. As such, the four original essays

my treatment of Early German Romanticism a bore? Don’t

form the basis of the present book in the form of chapters

complain about it, go read about pornography in Chapter

one through four, albeit in heavily edited form and with much

Three! Not keen on Jarman? Get a life! And some taste in

material added. The long fifth chapter is entirely new. It grew

films! Go read a booklet on Spielberg!

out of the fourth chapter and brings together many themes

For me, as a writer, this patchwork structure of the book

and topics raised in the course of the book.

meant that I did not have to kill my darlings. I know that there is a law of the literary land which states that you need


an editor to tell you what you should cut and what you should keep in a book. But I have always felt that editors are


Although the book tells a story that moves from a to b (and

a frustrated breed of people who are incapable of writing

back again!), the five chapters can be read as self-contained

good books themselves and who get off telling other people

pieces. Every chapter in turn consists of a series of sections

how to write theirs to compensate. I also suspect that there

that develop its argument. But many of these sections could

is a conspiracy of philologists at work here. First, they get

also be read as self-contained essays. This applies especially

themselves a job editing your texts into something entirely

to the sections that offer an extended analysis of the work

at odds with your intentions. Then, forty years on, if you

of one individual artist. As such, Chapter Three ends with

happen to have become famous, they get themselves another

a very long discussion of the films of Andy Warhol, the first

job editing the critical edition of your works, restoring the

chapter contains a discussion of David Hockney, and the

text to resemble “the author’s original intentions”. But since

fourth deals at some length with Francis Bacon. So the reader

you had those intentions to begin with, why tamper with

should feel free to browse. If the size of the book seems rather

them? Given that the public is volatile, an author’s idea of

intimidating but you have a liking for Warhol, you might

what a book should be like has just as much chance of being

simply read those sections and hopefully be triggered by that

successful than an editor’s (after all, an editor is just a person,

discussion to find out how my approach to Warhol’s films is

not some kind of god). Since it’s the author who is authoring

embedded in the philosophical discussions elsewhere in the

the book, he or she should get to edit it. Would we require a

book. So the reader should feel free to dip in as if this were

painter to submit his painting to an editor and then make

a banquet of essays. But readers who wish to browse would

the recommended changes to his canvas? Would we require

in any case be well-advised to first read the sections dealing

Rodin to lose the thinking person on his already alarmingly

with Susanne K. Langer in the first chapter. Since Langer

overcrowded Gates of Hell? I don’t think so. Filmmakers have

provides the philosophical foundations on which this book

to deal with this kind of shit all the time because film is all

is built, some knowledge of her insights will in any case be

about investors and money and stupid people crunching


popcorn and spilling drinks in the aisles but usually history

connections (Camille Paglia’s reference to William Blake’s

proves the director’s cut right. Obviously, any intelligent writer

poem ‘London’ appears twice, once at the beginning of

will be open to constructive criticism. But if and how he or

the book, and again at the very end, which should tell you

she deals with it is entirely his or her affair. So don’t kill your

something). This intricate web of connections also means that

darlings. As Nigella knows, ‘in cooking, as in writing, you must

the reader is invited and even encouraged to constantly make

please yourself to please others’ (Lawson 1998: viii).

such connections, also to things that are not in the book. That is the point of Only Connect.


But now, for an overview. Chapter One, Better Living Through Art, starts with controversy. It takes the so-called “culture


Given the structure of the book and the many excursions and

wars” in America as a starting point for a discussion of the

diversions that people it, it seems sensible to provide a more

artist’s relationship to the larger community. This is an old

detailed overview of the several chapters, so that the reader

philosophical question, at least as old as Plato’s Politics: does

may know what can be found where and how it should all be

the artist have some kind of moral or social responsibility

connected. Since the book is dense with information such a

or not? Those who feel that art does have a role to play in

brief layout might also do good service as a point of reference

our moral well-being are guilty of the “therapeutic fallacy”.

for the reader who is making his or her way, chapter by

Several sections of the chapter sketch a brief outline of the

laborious chapter, from start to finish. There are many threads

history of the therapeutic fallacy, specifically in American

running through the several chapters and I trust the reader

art, where art has often become very politicised. There is a

will often be triggered to connect (details in) discussions in

brief detour through German Romantic philosophy which will

later chapters with elements encountered in earlier chapters.

prove useful further in the book, where we will hark back to it.

It is impossible (and tiresome) to constantly point out such

This discussion of the therapeutic fallacy finally leads into a

possible links. Reading the book several times will certainly

critique of Martha Nussbaum. She makes several claims about

help bring out the connections. Among our constant concerns

the moral value of art, especially literature, but we will argue

are the relationship between feeling (or meaning) and form,

that her claims are not very persuasive. The major part of the

the transformation of commonplace objects, voyeurism,

chapter is devoted to a discussion of Susanne K. Langer, who

fetishism, pornography, creation or world-making, and the

gives a much more persuasive account of how art works. In

burden of identity. What Danto calls the transfiguration of

fact, it is the most persuasive philosophy of art I know. But

the commonplace returns in our discussion of alternative

we do not simply stick with philosophy: Langer’s ideas are

geographies in the fifth chapter, where the entire world

illustrated with, among other things, a section on the work

lies metamorphosed. Certain images, references, and

of David Hockney. Langer’s views on literature are discussed

quotes return at different places in the book, bookmarking

in direct opposition to Nussbaum. Finally, at the end of the



chapter, we return to Early German Romanticism to find there

what its distinctive features might be. This soon leads us

the roots of our postmodern concept of the self, which is also

into a discussion of the body as a mechanical sex object. We

illustrated in an extended discussion of Shakespeare.

trace part of the history of this concept, which allows us to

The second chapter is called Artworld Inc. and it seeks

celebrate the Marquis de Sade in an entire section devoted

to illustrate the way the larger artworld influences our

to his divine godless universe. This chapter also contains

relationship with art. The artworld is peopled with what

elements of a philosophy of voyeurism and fetishism. The

Robert Hughes now calls “VARPs” or “Vaguely Art-Related

final sections of the chapter are devoted to a monographic

People”. They are a pest and this chapter is against them!

study of the work of Andy Warhol, whose work is of cardinal

An important element in our discussion is the influence

importance to the issues raised in the previous discussion.

of philosophy on the way we perceive and judge works of

Especially his film work comes under scrutiny.

art. Most of the chapter is devoted to a heroic attempt at

With Chapter Four, Engaging The World, we start our swerve

refuting the work of Arthur C. Danto and his ideas on the

away from politicised art and we venture out in search of

transfiguration of the commonplace in art. But we also take

beauty. Our guide on this search is the American philosopher

issue with the emergence of the PhD in the arts. Along the

Elaine Scarry. There are two major parts in her work (at least

way we sketch two histories of the avant-garde that are

from the perspective of our concerns): a discussion of pain

at odds with Danto’s account of the avant-garde. One of

and a discussion of beauty. These two, apparently opposite,

our counterexamples is the German philosopher Panajotis

concerns are linked in her work. So if we want to get at

Kondylis, whose concept of postmodernism will stay with us

beauty, we must first deal with pain. The structure of the

for the rest of the book. Finally, we will also address the issue

chapter runs as follows: if we live in a world of alienation

of the avant-garde after the end of avant-garde. Since both

(and we claim, along with Marx, that we do) then we must

history, art, and the avant-garde have been pronounced dead

first get through this alienation before we can engage in

quite a few times, it is interesting to see how the artworld

a new relationship with the world. The work of Hermann

tries to maintain an air of progressive avant-gardism in the

Nitsch serves as a gateway to such a rebirth, explaining

view of this tragic demise.

how masochistic rituals (a continuation of themes from

The third chapter, Getting Physcials, is devoted to the body,

the previous chapter) can be an incentive to a more intense

which is put into play in performance art and pornography.

awareness of the world. By way of finale we offer an extended

There are two main themes running through this chapter.

analysis of Béla Tarr’s film Sátántángo, which is all the

First, it attempts to provide a definition of what performance

metaphysics we need today.

art actually is (surprisingly, such a definition is rather hard

Elaine Scarry is also our guide in the fifth and final chapter,

to come by in existing discussions of performance art);

Frail Gazing, which seeks to substitute what I call the “frail

second, it tries to define what kind of art pornography is and

gaze” for that ocular monster, the “male gaze”. Looking at


beautiful things is a wonderful pastime and the entire chapter

not be accomplished before deadline. Also, I regret I had to

is a defence of this much-maligned practice. We start our

jettison, for reasons of organisation (sometimes you just can’t

discussion with John Ruskin’s notion of the pathetic fallacy,

harmoniously squeeze into a book what you’d like to squeeze

which forbids us to see the world as animated. It soon

in), sections on Coil, Oleg Kulik, and many others. Readers

becomes clear that the general trend of the present book is

who want the shortest possible introduction to the experience

quite at odds with this idea, although we do reclaim Ruskin

of masochism as discussed in this book should watch director

for beauty. After that, it’s beauty all the way. The long chapter

João Pedro Rodrigues’ mighty O Fantasma (2000).

is a tapestry of interrelated discussions of artists that take up many topics from the earlier chapters. Animism, beauty,


memory, fetishism, and the joys of looking are several of the


themes that are traced through the work of Apichatpong

Finally, some notes on the material that is usually gathered

Weerasethakul (but because his work seems so personal

under the heading ‘Preface’. These are the thank you notes

and so engaging, I take the liberty of simply calling him

and the references to material published before elsewhere.

Apichatpong), Wolfgang Tillmans (who takes us back to our

Much of the material in this book draws on essays published

discussion of voyeurism and fetishism), Nan Goldin, Pier Paolo

in the last five years. Since I did not think it appropriate to

Pasolini, John Boorman, Jesús Franco (an unusual suspect for

make endless references to my own work in the text, I have

a philosophy of art), and Derek Jarman, who closes the book.

simply listed the most important items in the Bibliography.

Along the way, many other artists are discussed. We end, I

My discussions of the PhD in the arts, Anthony Goicolea, and

hope, in beauty, in Derek Jarman’s garden.

Terence Davies draw on pieces published in rekto:verso. If I

Several recently published books came to my attention too

manage to slip in my own definition of the sublime in the

late to include them in my discussion. But as they seem to

very last paragraph of the book, this is entirely due to the fact

be of great interest for the topics raised in Only Connect, I

that I have previously elaborated on it in that same journal

feel I should point the reader to them. Armando Maggi’s The

in a piece on “cinetrauma”. My discussions of voyeurism and

Resurrection of the Body (2009) covers much of the ground on

masochism, along with some material on Rorty and Goldin,

Pasolini’s late work from a point of view that seems similar to

were first essayed in Streven. Discussions of Warhol, Pasolini,

mine (I first published my extensive discussion of Pasolini’s

Boorman (and affiliated films), and Tarr draw on material

Saló in the Summer 2007 issue of Cinemagie). I love Richard

published in a series of essays for Cinemagie. The discussion

Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (1977) and regret I did not come

of radical chic for chic radicals draws on material presented

across The Craftsman (2008) sometime sooner. Hermann Nitsch

in Metropolis M. The material on Nitsch was first presented,

recently published his magnum opus, the massive, three-

in a somewhat briefer incarnation, as a public lecture at

volume Das Sein (2009). Reading it is a month’s work and could

OFFoff in Ghent in 2009. The audience at OFFoff also got a



preview of my musings on the link between performance art

to be thanked for reading earlier versions, correcting my

and pornography just before the book went to press. These

mistakes, or thinking in my stead. However, over the course

earlier texts have not been copy-pasted together to create the

of the years I have benefited from repeated discussions with

semblance of a book. Rather, I have relied on them as sources

(in alphabetical order) Antoon Braeckman (who pointed me

of information and have restated their arguments, or parts of

towards Kondylis and Manfred Frank, how can I thank him?),

them, within the fabric of new arguments. The earlier texts

Jean-Marie Bytebier, Wim Christiaens, Bert Frings, Linda

were treated as research to feed on, not sources to copy. Only

Hoo Hui Lan, Sander Jongen, Warre Mulder, Nele Tas, Kris

on a very few occasions have I scavenged my own earlier

Van Dessel, Karel Van Haesebrouck, Tom Van Imschoot, Sofie

essays and excerpted longer pieces of text. This applies

Verdoodt, and Frederik Vergaert. I hope I haven’t overlooked

especially to the discussion of Early German Romanticism

anyone. Finally, but not in the least, I dedicate this book to

in Chapter One and the discussion of Scarry and Marx in

Kris, my partner, who has had to live with it for the better part

Chapter Three. These sections reproduce, in sometimes

of our relationship. He has also created my website (www.

heavily edited form, material published in two booklets that and is the cause of a certain obsession

are available online from Lokaal 01: Absolute Beginnings (2009)

with Nigella.

and Stock Footage & Shock Tactics (2009). Finally, then, for the many thanks due to others. First and



foremost, I would like to thank the crew at Lokaal 01 for supporting and publishing this book. I would like to thank

For ease of reference I have introduced a number of sigla

the editors of rekto:verso, Cinemagie, Streven, and Metropolis M

to refer to books and sources that are frequently referred

for so often giving me carte blanche in the choice of topic

to. They are listed here. Full bibliographical details can be

and the mode of analysis in the essays they always (but no

retrieved in the Bibliography.

doubt sometimes grudgingly) published. These essays were an excellent playing ground to try out ideas and approaches that I hope have come to some kind of fruition in this book. Especially my work at rekto:verso was good learning. I can

TC Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace PDA Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art AEA Danto, After the End of Art

all those essays they will now have to suffer through an

PNK Langer, Philosophy in a New Key FF Langer, Feeling and Form PA Langer, Problems of Art MI Langer, Mind. Volume I

entire book containing more of the same and composed

OMT Nitsch, Das Orgien Mysterien Theater

without editorial restraint! My research wasn’t subsidised by

PJ Nussbaum, Poetic Justice

only imagine my friends’ dismay when they hear that after

any research grant, so I ain’t thankin’ no government. Since I have no scientific community to bask in, nobody needs

BP Scarry, The Body in Pain BBJ Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just DB Scarry, Dreaming by the Book

Chapter One


When Plato designed his ideal state, he felt the poets should be kept out. They were an unruly lot who threatened the moral fabric of the polity by presenting misleadingly immoral images of the gods. Poetry, to be permissible, must strengthen morale. In the Sophist it is the visual artist who comes under attack. Plato thought that the material world was only an imperfect copy of an ideal world of ideas. An image made by an artist was therefore a copy of a copy of reality and could only lead to falsehood and misrepresentation. Plato was no friend to the arts. Many centuries later Friedrich Schiller also mused on the morality of art in his letters on the aesthetic education of man, published in 1795. Schiller wasn’t quite as pessimistic as Plato and he believed that the theatre, which (as a dramatist) was his favoured art, could provide the public with moral lessons attractively packaged in entertaining sto-


ries. In that way the theatre could be an invaluable contribu-

Arts (NEA), which is to say that it was partially paid for with

tion to public morality and education. The idea that art can

taxpayers’ money. However, the hullabaloo over Serrano’s

and should somehow help us become better people has been

picture was to become part of a much larger controversy that

at the heart of aesthetics and morality for centuries. More

focused on a major Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective (Bau-

often than not art is attacked or defended on the grounds of

erlein 2009: 89-95). On December 9, 1988, the Mapplethorpe

its supposed moral effects and not on grounds of aesthetic

retrospective The Perfect Moment opened at the Institute for

achievement. In recent times we have seen an upsurge of

Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia. It would later travel

moral concern with the arts, as in the so-called “culture

to Washington and Cincinnati. The exhibition showed a wide

wars” that have ravaged American artistic life since the late

selection of photographs, including the infamous X Portfolio,

1980s. Both opponents and defenders of the arts argue from

a series of thirteen images showing men involved in extreme

the idea that art has moral effects on the public, desirable

acts of sadomasochism. This exhibition had also been partial-

or undesirable effects depending on which side of the politi-

ly funded with an NEA grant. Both Serrano’s and Mappletho-

cal spectrum a person chooses to locate herself. In this way

rpe’s work came under attack from the American Family

the debate on both sides implies that artists have some sort

Association, who alerted D’Amato to the scandal. On May 18,

of social responsibility: voices from the Right feel art should

1989, thirty-six senators signed a letter demanding changes

bolster traditional values, voices from the Left feel art should

to the NEA policy so ‘that shocking, abhorrent and completely

speak for the oppressed. Neither party seems to believe that

undeserving art would not get money’ (Morrisroe 1995: 372).

it is the foremost business of art to be beautiful or of out-

On June 12, 1989, it was announced that the Corcoran Gallery

standing aesthetic value. All these questions, however, raise a

in Washington D.C. had decided to cancel the Perfect Moment

much more fundamental issue about the nature of art: what

exhibition in view of the controversy. This caused outrage in

is it? How does it work? What does it do? Such questions

the art community and on June 30, a protest was organised

must be dealt with before we can say anything about the way

outside the Corcoran with protesters projecting slides of

art functions in society.

Mapplethorpe’s works onto the facade of the building. To Camille Paglia, who commented on the events in an essay, this

War and Resentment

protest represented what she called ‘Mapplethorpe’s essence,

The culture wars officially started on May 18, 1989, when

his spectral identity as a suffering Romantic artist forever

Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato tore apart a reproduc-

outside the pale. The demonstration ingeniously replayed,

tion of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) on the Senate floor.

without knowing it, the cinema of Blake’s great poem “Lon-

Serrano’s photograph showed a plastic crucifix immersed in

don,” where solitary, excluded voices smear or mar the cold

the artist’s own urine and had been shown in an exhibition

stone walls of society’s institutions’ (Paglia 1993: 41).

partially funded through the National Endowment for the

On July 26, the Senate approved restrictions proposed by Jesse


Helms, Republican senator for North Carolina. These restrictions demanded that the NEA would not ‘promote, disseminate or produce’ a veritable catalogue of offensive materials, namely: ‘(1) obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or (2) material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or, (3) material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin’ (Hughes 1994: 163). Much could be said about this amendment, first and foremost the fact that it casts its net so widely as to become virtually useless. Anything could be objected to by just about anyone according to 26

the phrasings of this text. What, for instance, could conceivably be meant by someone’s ‘religion or non-religion’? And would Helms support the suppression of religious speech that reviles homosexuals on the grounds that it denigrates on the basis of sex? In the end, it didn’t really matter because the Senate voted the restrictions down on September 29. But that was not the end of the controversy, for in March 1990 The Perfect Moment, by now surrounded by a heady atmosphere of scandal and prurience, opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, where obscenity charges were lodged against Dennis Barrie, the Center’s director. On October 5, 1990, however, both Barrie and the CAC were acquitted by a jury because the prosecution had failed to show that Mapplethorpe’s work lacked artistic merit. ‘The jury was unanimous in deciding that Mapplethorpe’s pictures appealed to a prurient interest in sex, and that they were patently offensive, but they couldn’t agree that they lacked artistic merit’



(Morrisroe 1995: 375). This in effect sunk the prosecution’s

lieved that art history was written by and for men and sought

case, for the three counts must be fulfilled in order to deem a

to redress the imbalance by recovering female artists from

work legally obscene.

the mists of the past. This research has brought to light some

The Perfect Moment controversy was a highly publicised case,

interesting women artists but it has not changed the general

but it was only one in a series of conservative attacks on the

outline of art history.

arts and the media. But the Left has been just as repressive

Parallel to the rise of gender feminism the 1980s also saw the

and many leftists, especially militant feminists (but also sev-

rise of so-called “issue-based art,” which is a highly politi-

eral other groups, notably gay activists), have made concerted

cised form of art about social oppression. In no particular

efforts to police public speech, education, the arts, and the

order this movement yielded feminist art, gay or lesbian

media in similar ways. The 1980s saw the rise of so-called

art, African-American art, and any kind of minority art one

“gender feminism”. Gender feminists are not ordinary femi-

cares to imagine. This vogue was born from ‘the notion that

nists. The tradition of feminism as it was conceived in the

one of the specific tasks of the contemporary artist was to

nineteenth century finds its expression in what is called “eq-

give a voice to groups that in some way saw themselves as

uity feminism”: the demand for equal rights and freedoms

disadvantaged’ (Lucie-Smith 2001: 207). Most issue-based

for women, but with no demands for special treatment and

art was dull and preachy and barely bothered to rise above

without rancour or hatred towards men. Gender feminism

the level of public whining. But there was no need to rise

is much more radical and displays an outspoken hostility

because feminists had made the idea of aesthetic quality

towards men. Christina Hoff Sommers has called it a ‘femi-

subservient to social concerns. A work could become valid as

nism of resentment that rationalises and fosters a wholesale

art on the strength of its being an expression of the suffer-

rancour in women that has little to do with moral indigna-

ing of the oppressed. According to Robert Hughes, who was

tion’ (Hoff Sommers 1995: 41). Gender feminism is a kind of

severely critical of this development, issue-based art led to

identity politics that claims that women have been, and still

‘the belief that mere expressiveness is enough; that I become

are, oppressed and abused by a patriarchy that condones

an artist by showing you my warm guts and defying you to

and even encourages violence against women. The mission

reject them. [...] I am a victim: how dare you impose your

of gender feminism is not simply to do away with the many

aesthetic standards on me?’ (Hughes 1994: 188). Feminists

grievous discriminations women face in the world, which is a

believed they had to police the arts for offensive materials,

project that no sensible person could oppose, but to create a

very much in the way that conservatives wanted to keep

rift between men and women. They are at war with the pa-

publicly funded art clean from immoral elements. Porn came

triarchy and seek to denounce, shame, and, if at all possible,

heavily under attack, especially from latter-day Puritans like

censor all utterances, writings, opinions, or works of art that

Catharine MacKinnon. Male artists such has Picasso became

they deem offensive to women. Gender feminists further be-

virtual untouchables in women’s studies because of their per-



ceived sexism and were replaced with the work of oppressed

approach considered to be unacceptable because it implicitly

women and with the joys of quilt-making, which became the

denigrates those who are given lesser status. The very idea of

ruling feminist metaphor for art in the new, liberated mode.

“genius” is regarded with suspicion as elitist and “masculin-

One of the most saddening aspects of the feminist hysteria

ist”’ (Hoff Sommers 1995: 64-65). The second response was of-

was its attack on beauty itself, lead by Naomi Wolf’s book The

ten used to buttress the first and relies on deconstruction in

Beauty Myth (1990), which claims that beauty is an ideological

the New Historicist mode: by “demonstrating” that works of

tool instilled in women as a form of self-surveillance. Beauty

art are mere “effects” of “social energies,” the idea of the in-

was perceived as making women complicit in their own sub-

dividual artist as a creative genius could be done away with.

ordination. Also, beauty, and especially physical beauty in

Thus, the death of the author was cheerfully proclaimed. Ob-

women, was guilty of inviting the male gaze, an objectifying

viously, there is nothing wrong with contextualising works of

way of looking that reduced beautiful women to mere sex

art to enhance understanding. But to see works of art as mere

objects in the eye of lascivious beholders of evil intent.

effects of anonymous social energies, about which very little

In literature departments the canon came under attack. If

can be proved (the idea of social energies is just as ephemeral

art history was a male conspiracy to keep women back, then

and metaphysical as Freud’s subconscious or the argument

the history of literature was the work of “dead white Euro-

from design in religious circles), is quite something else. Har-

pean males”. This diagnosis elicited two responses. The first

old Bloom opposed New Historicism and pointedly remarked

was the substitution of contemporary minority literature of

that ‘William Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, twenty-

questionable literary quality for the more canonical texts that

four of them masterpieces, but social energy has never writ-

were read in the traditional curriculum. This was euphemisti-

ten a single scene. The death of the author is a trope, and a

cally called an “expansion” of the canon. Such an expansion

rather pernicious one; the life of the author is a quantifiable

might be marginally tolerable if the substitutes were works of

entity’ (Bloom 1994: 37).

literary merit, but, as Harold Bloom points out, ‘the “expan-

Bloom famously baptised these trends in feminism, minority

sion of the Canon” has meant the destruction of the Canon,

thinking, and New Historicism the “School of Resentment”:

since what is being taught includes by no means the best

fuelled by a misguided sense of egalitarianism and social

writers who happen to be women, African, Hispanic, or Asian,

justice they reject any kind of greatness and desperately try

but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment

to drag everything down to their own level. ‘Originality is the

they have developed as part of their sense of identity’ (Bloom

great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate’ (o.c. 25).

1994: 7). Christina Hoff Sommers remarks that the gender

Talent and genius are denied, standards of quality and excel-

feminists ‘challenge the very idea of “great art,” “great litera-

lence are jettisoned as oppressive tools of discrimination,

ture,” and [...] “great science.” Talk of “greatness” and “master-

and politics takes the place of aesthetics because beauty is in

pieces” implies a ranking of artists and works, a “hierarchical”

the gaze of the rapist. And so extremes meet in the American



culture wars. Both the Right and the Left have tried to censor

the new edition, leaving some pages virtually blank. This kind

art and language. The Right wants to censor anything that is

of ‘pre-emptive self-censorship’ is made necessary because,

offensive to their religious, patriotic, or other moral beliefs,

as Waugh dramatically but entirely justifiably claims, ‘we fear

the Left would like to censor anything that transgresses

for our livelihoods and our freedom and safety, as well as,

the norm of political correctness. So common sense, art,

more pragmatically and importantly, for the ability to distrib-

and education get stuck between what Robert Hughes has

ute this edition’ if such possibly offensive images are left in

called the two PCs: Patriotic Correctness and Political Cor-

(Falkon 2006: 21).

rectness (Hughes 1997: 619). In both cases the censorship is

The third example of PC censorship is taken from my own

founded on the belief that art has a public role to fulfil and

experience. Like many of my friends, I have a Facebook page.

that this role is somehow moral in nature. Art educates, art

One day I decided to create ‘The Aiden Shaw Appreciation

makes us better people. According to your definition of what

Society’ as a fan page for the now-legendary gay porn star.

constitutes a “good” human being you can write your own

It was meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, as the name of the

catalogue of unwanted expressions, language, art-works,

page suggests. There was no offensive material on the page,

ideas, television programs, and so on. This wave of Political

only a picture of Shaw’s bare chest (with pants on) and a brief

Correctness resulted in a series of cases of actual censorship

text extolling his fine physique. The page only had a hand-

that were often so bizarre that they could have been funny

ful of fans, since my stock of Facebook-friends is limited to

if the situation wasn’t so desperately depressing. In a much-

people I actually know, many of whom are not even gay. On

publicised case, Nancy Stumhofer, an English instructor at

January 31, 2010, I received a warning from Facebook that

Pennsylvania State University, pressured administrators into

my Appreciation Society had been removed because it vio-

removing a reproduction of Goya’s The Naked Maya from a

lated the Terms of Use, which forbid groups that are ‘hateful,

classroom because it created “a hostile work environment”

threatening, or obscene’. Since the page was in appreciation

(Hoff Sommers 1995: 270-271; Paglia 1995: 50). The sheer force

of a person, I assume it wasn’t hateful or threatening. So it

of the PC movement, and the very real dangers of legal ac-

must have been obscene, despite the fact that there were no

tion it entails, often resulted in self-censorship by authors

offensive pictures or foul language on it. Therefore, I must

and artists. This was the case when scholar Thomas Waugh

assume that the very fact that Shaw is a gay male porn star

edited what he diplomatically calls ‘a “reasonably faithful”

was deemed obscene and offensive by Facebook. At the same

facsimile edition’ of Felix Lance Falkon’s classic book of gay

time, however, several politicians from the (extreme) right

graphic art, Gay Art. A Historic Collection, originally published

maintain Facebook pages without interference, regardless of

in 1972. This book collected homo-erotic drawings from the

the fact that they stand for hateful, racist, and often threat-

sexual underground and contained several images that sug-

ening ideologies. Apparently, a gay male porn star is obscene

gested sex with minors. Several such images were cropped in

per se, but right-wing racists are not. This gives an idea of


the kind of PC democracy and freedom Facebook stands for.

was considered by many to be the Second Coming. By con-

Finally, the e-mail closed with the warning that ‘further she-

sequence, Shaker beliefs allowed great equality between the

nanigans wit’in Ye Olde Facebook’s borders mayhapse cause

sexes, as God had become manifest both through Jesus Christ

ye arrrrrcount t’ be used fer cannon fodder!’ There is some-

and through Ann Lee. But Lee also held strict views on world-

thing unsettling about this phrase. Its jocular tone suggests

liness. Of jewellery and decoration she said: ‘You may let the

that I’ve really just been a very bad boy and should know

moles and bats have them; that is, the children of this world;

better by now. It treats the whole affair as a quibble among

for they set their hearts upon such things; but the people of

friends. But where’s the joke in censorship?

God do not want them’ (Kirk 1997: 52). However, in his fine study of Shaker art and culture, James T. Kirk rightly points


The Power of Vision

out that the Shakers were ‘not against beauty, but against

The idea that art has a moral role to play in society is at the

ostentation’ (o.c. 54) and that they ‘usually sought to expunge

heart of the American concept of art and can be traced back

unnecessary details from thoughts, daily living, and designs’

to the historical roots of the republic. The three most impor-

(o.c. 37). As a consequence, Shaker culture has created objects

tant religious sects to seek refuge in America from religious

of great economy but splendid beauty. Several Shaker phrases

intolerance in the Old World, namely Puritans, Quakers, and

give us insight into the principles they used when creating

Shakers, disapproved of art to a great extent. The 17th century

objects for use, in the first instance architecture and furni-

New England Puritans had a profound distrust of the image.

ture: ‘Regularity is beautiful’; ‘There is great beauty in har-

This distrust extended to religious art because it fell under

mony’; ‘Order is the creation of beauty’; ‘Beauty rests on util-

the ban on graven images in Deuteronomy. And since the

ity’. So Shaker culture does not reject beauty, but for Shakers

Puritans did not approve of excessive worldliness the idea of

beauty ‘has to do with order [and] is judged by perception of

painting a landscape for the sake of a landscape was equally

unity and appropriateness’ (o.c. 55).

anathema. The only kind of painting they did commission

American attitudes towards art would change with the ad-

was portraiture, which had no “expressive” goal but simply

vent of Romanticism, not because the religious ideas behind

served to preserve a person’s features for posterity (Hughes

the dislike disappeared, but because Romanticism offered

1997: 32). The Quakers were in some respects the opposite

a concept of art, and especially of landscape painting, that

of the austere Puritans, for they celebrated ‘unstructured,

was commensurable with the religious ideas of Puritans. The

ecstatic, spirit-led relationships with God’ (Kirk 1997: 11). But

Romantics started to explore the relationship between man

just like the Puritans they disapproved of worldliness. The

and nature and saw nature as a guide to divine presence in

Shakers evolved out of the Quakers and were especially noto-

the material world. But the rise of landscape painting as the

rious for the ecstatic dancing during their religious services.

quintessential American genre did not happen overnight. In

Their most important early spiritual leader was Ann Lee, who

the early decades of the republic portraiture dominated the



visual arts to the extent that it became a burden on artists’

influences on health, morals and politics’ (o.c. 127). As John

ability to develop their craft: artists were so dependent upon

Armstrong points out, ‘the belief that it makes a difference

commissions that they had to devote most of their attention

what you contemplate relies upon the assumption that what

and energy to portraits. There was a group of artists, how-

you contemplate somehow gets inside you; contemplation

ever, who were fortunate enough to have wealthy families or

is the spiritual analogue to eating’ (Armstrong 2000: 99-100).

patrons who could afford (and were willing) to finance a trip

People become infected by what they see. An interesting

to the Old World in order that the artist might study the art

effect of this new moral perspective on art was ‘increased

of Europe. When these artists returned to the United States,

respect for mind and artistic creativity. Uncontaminated

they found that the European aristocratic approach to art

nature, the standard of perfection for Americans at home,

was at odds with the American perception of artists as crafts-

developed a competitor. God revealed His true greatness not

men. For Americans, painting was a trade like any other. But

through His own works, but through the man-made objects

as art-historian Neil Harris explains in his study of The Artist

which He inspired.’ From now on art could no longer be seen

in American Society (1966), the artists who had sojourned in

simply as a trade because ‘art’s triumphs were also nature’s,

Europe ‘had spent years developing techniques to differenti-

but nature ripened and extended. [...] True masterpieces were

ate themselves from mere visual craftsmen, and they did not

distinguished not by manual tricks or sleight of hand, but by

even consider surrendering their hard-won technical mastery

a grandeur of mind. [...] The purpose of painting, therefore,

and their intellectual objectives to straightforward record-

was not to imitate nature’s beauties but to present a great

ing of the ordinary. Higher, more transcendental goals alone

and original concept. “The great artists do not give us nature,

could justify their sacrifices and trials. Art was “divine,” and

but give us themselves,” wrote James Freeman Clarke. [...] The

divinity precluded compromises with vulgar needs’ (Harris

artist’s primary function was to be true to his own concep-

1982: 87).

tualisations, enriching natural views with personal insights’

Soon, American artists and critics ‘produced grandiose

(Harris 1982: 131).

conceptions of art as a moral and political instrument, and

The aesthetic experiences of Americans abroad often took

a panacea for human ills’ (o.c. 124). It is difficult to over-

on a near-religious intensity. This rapture was shared by the

estimate the importance of the Amercian artists’ travels

many clergy who travelled to Europe and who returned to

through Europe for this shift of perspective. As Neil Harris

the homeland to testify to the transforming power of the

has pointed out, ‘it is impossible to accept the continual

visual arts. One of the reasons the clergy became convinced

emphasis on the moral efficacy of art objects, as threats or

of art’s moral power was the fact that the Catholic church

bulwarks to the established order, unless it is understood

had for centuries been the most important patron of the arts

that the art experience of many travellers was so traumatic

in Europe. Aesthetic rapture was most often experienced

that they believed vision could exert permanent and radical

in front of Renaissance and Baroque saints in transports of


ecstasy. The very force of these works made it clear that art

the landscape experience was that of God as supreme artist,

could be a powerful ally for any religion and it seemed a pity

it need only be a short step to the idea that artists were seers

that American Puritans had denied themselves the benefits

or priests. [...] They were trained to read the Book of nature,

of such a valuable tool. From the 1830s on Americans began

in which God’s will was inscribed, as surely as in the Bible’

to look favourably upon such new ideas imported from the

(Hughes 1997: 138-139).

Old World. The idea of art as religious revelation pleased


Americans because there had always been an element of

Divine Substance

pantheism in Puritanism, which tended to see ‘evidence

But the Transcendentalists did not think of all this on their

of divine planning in natural disasters and windfalls’ (o.c.

own. In fact, much of their philosophy was also a European

171). This mystico-religious approach to nature was made

import. It was very close to German idealism, and especially

explicit in the philosophy of the Transcendentalist move-

to Schelling’s philosophy of Nature. Schelling had in turn

ment, whose most famous representatives were Ralph Waldo

been profoundly influenced by the work of Spinoza, who was

Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).

generally held to be responsible for reintroducing the her-

Transcendentalism was the philosophy of the worship of

esy of pantheism into modern thought. The concept of the

Nature. As Neil Harris explains, ‘Transcendentalists held

American Sublime, the American brand of landscape painting

that material objects were significant only as emanations of

with its heroic concept of the artist and his relation to nature,

Spirit, the world being [...]. It was vital for man to understand

is very much a continuation of ideas that were at the heart

his proper relationship with the external world, for strang-

of Romantic philosophy in Europe. So it is useful to briefly

ers to nature were alienated from God. The energy of the

look at this history and see where Emerson and his kind got

Supreme Being, what Transcendentalists called “Spirit,” lay

their metaphysical ideas. It is a fascinating story that starts,

behind and throughout all material objects. All matter was

for our purposes, with Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), who

therefore good in the sight of God, and all of nature deserved

at the dawn of the eighteenth century was the world’s most

reverence’ (o.c. 172-3). This way, Transcendentalism ‘opened

despised philosopher because he had published a tract in

the door to art appreciation, but also constrained it. [...] Art’s

defence of religious tolerance and because his concept of God

only importance lay in its representation of nature’ (o.c. 173).

was felt to be nihilistic, pantheistic, and atheistic. Spinoza

Transcendentalism therefore provided the key element in the

saw God as infinite substance, an all-encompassing entity in

transition from Puritan suspicion of art to a celebration of

which all events were linked in an endless chain of causality.

art as the seat of moral and religious sentiment. ‘If American

God therefore is nature. But this was a tricky idea, for if the

nature was one vast church,’ Robert Hughes remarks, ‘then

world consists of a series of tightly connected causes, then

landscape artists were its clergy. This changed the status of

this raises the obvious question of the final cause: if every

American artists themselves. [...] If the presiding metaphor of

cause is in turn explained by another cause, this leaves the



problem of what caused the first cause, and whether a first

die Lehre des Spinoza (1785), which would become immensely

cause, namely God, can exist at all. Therefore, materialism

influential among young Romantic philosophers. Jacobi’s

and the denial of God’s existence were felt to be but a breath

book is a messy affair, a collage of fragments and snippets

away and Spinoza was duly condemned for his unorthodox

from letters. Mendelssohn was shocked and dismayed by it,

views. Henry More even called him ‘the most impudent of

especially since Jacobi had not bothered to ask permission

mortals’ (Israel 2001: 229). Within less than a century, how-

to publish extracts from Mendelssohn’s letters. Mendelssohn

ever, Spinoza would rise to prominence again thanks to Ger-

felt he should respond and soon a major philosophical con-

man Romantic philosophy. And it is one of those subtle iro-

troversy was in the making, with arguments being made for

nies of history that one of the chief thinkers responsible for

and against Lessing’s alleged Spinozism by both the original

this revival was a man who heartily disliked Spinoza. Moses

contenders and several other philosophers who felt the need

Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was profoundly critical of Spinoza

to contribute to the debate. In the end, the controversy would

but became an unwilling participant in Spinoza’s comeback

claim Mendelssohn’s life. Rushing to get the manuscript of

at the hands of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), one of

An die Freunde Lessings, his final rebuttal to Jacobi, to his pub-

the first German Romantic philosophers.

lisher on December 31, 1785, the coldest day of the year, Men-

Jacobi claimed that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) had

delssohn forgot to put on his coat, fell seriously ill, and died

told him that ‘there is no philosophy other than Spinoza’s’

within days on January 4, 1786 (o.c. 74). Jacobi was widely

(Beiser 1987: 66). Lessing is now chiefly remembered as the

held to be responsible for Mendelssohn’s tragic and untimely

author of a famous essay on Laokoön oder über die Grenzen

demise. The controversy itself would continue a while longer,

der Malerei und Poesie (1766) but he was a man of formidable

but the main effect was that the name of Spinoza was now

stature in the eighteenth century and a personal friend of

once again foremost in philosophers’ minds. And no Roman-

Mendelssohn’s. Jacobi’s claim about Lessing’s supposed Spi-

tic philosopher would be more deeply influenced by Spinoza

nozism was not an unlikely suggestion since between 1774

than Schelling.

and 1778 Lessing had published the Wolffenbüttler Fragmente,

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) was one of

selections from the Spinozist writings of one H.S. Reimarius.

the many young Romantic philosophers who read Jacobi’s

Lessing’s commentary on these fragments was widely felt to

book with passionate interest. He would go on to become the

be too impartial and not sufficiently critical of Spinoza. When

quintessential Romantic philosopher and is primarily re-

Mendelssohn heard about Jacobi’s intent to disclose Lessing’s

membered as the author of an ambitious philosophy of na-

Spinozism, he felt he should defend his friend’s posthumous

ture in a Spinozist vein. Schelling’s clearest statement of this

reputation and started to exchange letters with Jacobi on the

Romantic philosophy can be found in his System des transzen-

matter. Eager to make his case, Jacobi assembled a selection

dentalen Idealismus (1800). Schelling sees Nature as a produc-

from their correspondence and rushed it into print as Über

tive force that constantly creates itself. It is infinite self-real-



isation. Nature brings itself into being, which is reminiscent

man Romantic philosophers. Novalis had also claimed that

of Spinoza’s idea of God as perpetually creative substance (in

‘the sense of poetry has much in common with mysticism.

fact, Schelling’s philosophy on this point was also profoundly

[...] It sees the invisible, feels what cannot be felt [...]. The

influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who in the early 1790s

poet is truly out of his senses – that is why everything is in

was a terrific philosophical presence in Jena, where Schelling

him. [...] The sense of poetry is closely related to the sense of

studied). All the natural phenomena, be they plants, animals,

clairvoyance and to the religious, in fact to the art of the seer.

minerals, or human beings, are products of this process of

The poet establishes order, unites, chooses, creates – and yet

self-realisation. The end of the process is mankind because in

it is unclear to him why things must be so and not otherwise’

man Nature has generated something that is similar to itself:

(Frank 1989: 174). Robert Rosenblum has suggested that many

a being that wants to realise its own goals in nature. Just like

of the ideas about art and nature expressed in these philoso-

Nature, humans engage in self-realisation by transforming

phies could also be found in the art of Romanticism, and he

the world around them to suit their purposes. That is why

has pointed to the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

Schelling saw man as a microcosm: the basic dynamic of

as the clearest representative of this trend, which he has

Nature is also at work in man. With man, Nature has reached

called the Northern Romantic tradition. Rosenblum also sug-

the end of its self-realisation because, in a sense, it has recre-

gests that there is a link between this European tradition in

ated itself, or its double. Man is Nature’s crowning achieve-

landscape painting and a similar tradition in America, exem-

ment. And of all man’s endeavours, the greatest and most

plified by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), but he offers

divine is the creation of works of art through which man

no proof of this link. It seems possible, however, that the lines

expresses himself in the external world.

of influence can be traced through the Transcendentalists’

Schelling is a cardinal figure in the history of the philosophy

enthusiasm for German philosophy.

of art because he created the stereotype of the Romantic artist as a genius inspired by higher forces. In his System

The Therapeutic Fallacy

des transzendentalen Idealismus Schelling writes that genius

The idea of nature and the artist as gateways to the divine

is possible only in the arts, where he famously found ‘the

had important consequences for American art. For one thing,

expression of tranquillity and quiet greatness’ (‘der Ausdruck

the new concept of landscape and of landscape painting

der Ruhe und der stillen Grösse’; Schelling 2000: 291). And the

became linked to the idea of Manifest Destiny, which is ‘the

artist, in creating the work of art, is unconsciously driven by

belief that westward colonisation of America was not only a

a desire to fulfil an irrepressible natural urge within himself.

right but a sacred duty’ (Hughes 1997: 157). To the American

The artist’s genius is a gift from nature, granted at birth. Al-

mind, the continent was a land of plenty, most of which as

though Schelling is the locus classicus for this concept of the

yet unexplored, which had been created by God to be ex-

artist, such ideas were common currency among Early Ger-

plored, settled, and cultivated by the brave frontier man. If



the material world could be read like the Bible, then the mes-

sive book Kosmos was published in 1845. On the basis of

sage written down in it seemed to have been lifted straight

his wide-ranging research, supported by a global network

out of Genesis: submit the earth. In the name of Manifest

of correspondents and scientists who forwarded him their

Destiny explorers set out from the East coast to cross the

measurements of temperature, barometric pressure, rainfall,

continent, claiming the land they found and driving the Indi-

and other phenomena, Von Humboldt had reached an all-

ans before them. The classic formulation of Manifest Destiny

encompassing vision of the universe as one huge organism in

was written by the journalist William Gilpin and read to the

which everything is connected, a cosmos where, in his own

U.S. Senate in 1846: ‘The untransacted destiny of the American

words, there ‘is a unity in diversity of phenomena: a harmo-

people is to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field

ny, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in

to the Pacific Ocean – to animate the many hundred mil-

form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath

lions of its people, and to cheer them upward... to teach old

of life’ (o.c. 158). This inspired in him a great respect for all of

nations a new civilisation – to confirm the destiny of the hu-

nature which would become the root of the environmentalist

man race... Divine task! Immortal mission! Let us tread fast and

movement in America, where the English translation of Kos-

joyfully the open trail before us! Let every American heart

mos, published in 1848, was a huge success. As Aaron Sachs

open wide for patriotism to glow undimmed, and confide

remarks, Von Humboldt ‘cared about each element of nature

with religious faith in the sublime and prodigious destiny of

because every weed, stinging insect, and poisonous snake

his well-loved country’ (Hughes 1997: 190). The West, to the

played a crucial role in what he came to think of as particular

Americans, was a Promised Land that was there for the tak-

ecosystems, all of which seemed to thrive on biodiversity’

ing, a divine gift to God’s new chosen people.

(Sachs 2006: 52).

Not everyone agreed with this vision. A major dissenter was

Von Humboldt’s success coincided with the rise of Transcen-

the German explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt

dentalism and his influence on Thoreau was massive. What

(1769-1859), who was a great admirer of the young Ameri-

made Von Humboldt especially attractive to Transcenden-

can republic but never tired of castigating it for what he

talists was the fact that he saw man as an element in the

considered its two greatest moral blights: slavery and the

cosmos. This meant that man was not immune to changes in

oppression of indigenous Indian cultures. Von Humboldt

the ecosystem: there was an intrinsic link between man and

had become very famous for his expedition, in the company

his world. It also meant that the experience of nature could

of Aimé Bonpland, to South- and Central-America between

transform men, not only in a physical, but also in a spiritual

1799 and 1804. At the end of his journey Von Humboldt was

way; and that man could relate this spiritual renewal to his

received by president Jefferson and the two men would keep

fellow men. One of the ways this spiritual experience could

in contact through correspondence. Von Humboldt reached

be communicated was through landscape painting. Its great-

a new level of global fame when the first volume of his mas-

est American exponent was Frederick Edwin Church, who



painted huge canvases of sublime American nature that

political in character’ (o.c. 103). It included a series of badges,

carried the force of revelation. But this was not the end of

created by Daniel Martinez, that bore part of the slogan “I

art’s moral mission. By the 1880s art as religion had begun

can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”. Every visitor was

to mutate into something only slightly less transcendent in

issued such a badge at the admission desk. Another “work”

nature: art as therapy. This change profoundly affected the

on display was the infamous video of the Rodney King beat-

shape of a new American institution, the museum. The earli-

ing, showing Los Angeles police officers kicking a black man.

est American museums originated from private collections.

The question whether such works were art at all (a question

As Robert Hughes explains, these museums were supposed

that is especially salient in the Rodney King tape, which was

to ‘create zones of transcendence within the society’ (Hughes

not made as a work of art but filmed by a man who happened

1994: 180). The museum was conceived of as a kind of health

to be on the scene with a camcorder), let alone good art, took

spa, a space where nervous conditions could be soothed.

a back seat to their political and emotional urgency: the only

This idea was born from the fact that many collectors had

thing that mattered was their ability to raise consciousness

turned to collecting for personal comfort. ‘Some of them,

among the public about social injustice. Similarly, in the Sep-

notably Charles Freer and Isabella Stewart Gardner, were

tember 26, 1993 issue of The Washington Post, Camille Paglia

deeply neurasthenic creatures who looked to art to cure their

wrote that when she and artist Alison Maddex ‘toured the

nervous afflictions and thought it could do the same for the

Whitney’s rape exhibit this summer, we were appalled and

less well off’ (o.c. 181). This attitude was heavily influenced

incredulous. Visitors were wandering around with tears in

by yet another European import: the psychoanalysis of Sig-

their eyes, as rape victims recited their sorrows on a video

mund Freud, where art was seen as symptom, the sublimated

monitor. When the offerings of a major museum are indistin-

expression of suppressed desires and drives. But it resulted

guishable from the victimisation soap opera of television talk

in a concept of art that is still pervasive in American culture

shows, art has ceased to exist’ (Paglia 1995: 114). It certainly

and which Robert Hughes has called ‘the therapeutic fallacy,’

does seem to be the case that such exhibits transgress the

namely the idea that ‘works of art were moral in themselves

boundary that separates art from non-art. It is part of the

because, whether you knew it or not at first, they pointed the

business of this chapter to explain why and how.

way to higher truths and so did you good’ (o.c. 183). It is essentially this approach to art that fuelled the politically

Narrative Didactics

correct backlash against “offensive” art and the promotion of

The locus classicus for art as therapy is obviously Aristotle’s

issue-based art in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Arthur

Poetics. In the sixth chapter of this book, which has only been

C. Danto the 1993 Whitney Biennial was ‘a high-water mark

partially transmitted, Aristotle writes that ‘a tragedy is an

of the politically tumultuous 1980s’ (Danto 2003: 106). ‘The

imitation of an action which is serious and, having grandeur,

work presented was for the most part accusatory, and angrily

complete in itself, done in language seasoned with embel-


lishments, each appearing separately in different parts of the work, in dramatic rather than narrative form, accomplishing by way of pity and fear the catharsis of such feelings’ (Barnes 1995: 276). The idea of catharsis has proved very enduring. In ancient Greek it could mean two things, either the purgation of the body through laxatives and emetics or ritual purification in religion. In his discussion of tragedy Aristotle suggests that in a good play a similar catharsis can be accomplished for feelings like fear and pity: we are purged of them by seeing them represented. This, in essence, is the root of the therapeutic fallacy: the notion that art can somehow “cure” us of something. As Jonathan Barnes points out, there is much uncertainty about how this “purification” should be understood. The idea of art as catharsis also raises many objections, and the most important is that ‘to suppose that the primary rea-


son, or even a main reason, for encouraging productions of Oedipus is that they clean up our feelings is to turn art into emotional therapy’ (o.c. 279). But that is exactly the approach to art that underlies the culture wars, both on the Right and on the Left: art is supposed to be good for us. It is something to help us deal with the perplexities of life, or at least to help us become better citizens. As literary critic Kenneth Burke assures us, ‘poetry is produced for purposes of comfort, as part of the consolatio philosophiae’ (Burke 1973: 61). In recent philosophy about art and its social uses and effects several influential theories have been put forward that seem to fit into the tradition of the therapeutic fallacy. In Contingency, irony, and solidarity (1989), Richard Rorty claims that all people have what he calls a “final vocabulary”. This vocabulary is ‘a set of words which they employ to justify Arthur C. Danto

their actions, their beliefs, and their lives’ (Rorty 1989: 73).



God, justice, nature, our nation, or decency, along with a host

ways possible, books can suitably substitute for actual people.

of other words, can all function as parts of a final vocabulary:

Martha Nussbaum has addressed similar issues and is equal-

they are the words in the name of which people take moral

ly persuaded of literature’s ability to alter our relationships

stands. Such a final vocabulary ‘is “final” in the sense that if

with other people. In Love’s Knowledge (1990) she suggests

doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no

that books can be “friends” to us in a way similar to our hu-

noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far

man friends. She illustrates this with an example from her

as he can go with language; beyond them there is only help-

own personal history as ‘a child whose best friends were, on

less passivity or a resort to force’ (ibid.). Rorty further intro-

the whole, novels’ (Nussbaum 1990: 11) and with the fictional

duces a type of person whom he calls an “ironist,” namely

example of David Copperfield, who also turns to books for

someone who ‘has radical and continuing doubts about the

companionship. Nussbaum next asks ‘what kinds of “people,”

final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been

as friends, novels are’ (o.c. 236). She has tried to answer that

impressed by other vocabularies’ (ibid.). So Rorty implies that

question in a series of books that argue for a philosophy of

our final vocabulary is not fixed: although we might cling

the emotions that also allows for a theory of the social uses

to it and defend it with great passion, to the point of being

and effects of the novel. She has developed the arguments

willing to give up our lives for the ideals expressed in it, the

for literature most clearly in Poetic Justice (1995), where she

contents of our vocabulary may shift throughout our life as a

explains how reading novels can be useful to reach con-

result of inner changes, emotional growth, or through contact

sidered judgements in the courts or in our dealings with

with other people’s vocabularies. The ironist is someone who

other people about whom we know very little and towards

accepts this fluidity and might even go one step further: the

whom we might otherwise feel distrust. This argument was

ironist is not unlikely to go out into the world to meet new

then further elaborated in Cultivating Humanity (1997), where

vocabularies to make sure that there is not some vocabulary

Nussbaum wants to ‘ask about the relationship of a liberal

out there that might be more worthwhile than the one she is

education to citizenship’ (Nussbaum 1997: 8). She feels that

currently living in.

the global and multicultural character of contemporary soci-

Considering the ironist’s quest for a more suitable vocabulary

ety requires future students of the world to be able to tackle

Rorty claims that ‘our doubts about our own characters or

the many differences between people and cultures they are

our own culture can be resolved or assuaged only by enlarg-

bound to encounter. To this end she argues for an educa-

ing our acquaintance. The easiest way of doing that is to

tion that ‘liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and

read books’ (o.c. 80) because in books we can find a ‘detailed

custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity

description of what unfamiliar people are like’ (o.c. xvi). To

and alertness as citizens of the whole world. This is what

enlarge our acquaintance with other vocabularies we should

Seneca means by the cultivation of humanity’ (ibid.). Such

ideally meet as many people as we can. Since this is not al-

an education must foster ‘the capacity for critical examina-



tion of oneself and one’s traditions’ (o.c. 9) and train people

of the kind of reasoning that a judge should engage in when

‘to see themselves not simply as citizens of some local region

judging criminals. The novel teaches us that ‘governments,

or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to

wherever they are, should attend to citizens in all their indi-

all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern’

viduality and variety, responding in a sensitive way to histori-

(o.c. 10). At the heart of this educational enterprise lies what

cal and personal contingencies’ (PJ 45). Just like the charac-

Nussbaum calls ‘the narrative imagination. This means the

ters in a novel, citizens and criminals have a personal history

ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a

that is entirely unique and that should not be set aside when

person different from oneself [and] to be an intelligent reader

judging their actions. In this sense Nussbaum sees the liter-

of that person’s story’ (o.c. 10-11). And what better way for

ary artist as ‘the equalizer of his age and land,’ a description

students, and citizens in general, to learn to read other peo-

she borrows from Walt Whitman (PJ 4): the literary artist who

ple’s stories than by reading novels, which are the paradigm

writes a novel or a poem (for Nussbaum stresses that her

of such human narratives?

views also apply to poetry) makes us aware of the fact that

Nussbaum suggests that the distinguishing feature of the

other people, no matter who they are, are very similar to us

novel is its close attention to the intricacies of individual

in their vulnerability and in the things they care about or the

lives and the complex contexts in which they are situated.

ways they care about them.

Novels help us understand the particular lives of particular

But the question this raises and that interests us most is how

people by giving us detailed insight into their daily doings,

this comes about. Nussbaum talks of ‘modes of interaction’

their ways of expressing themselves, and even their deepest

that are at work in the novel and that can fundamentally

thoughts and feelings. According to Nussbaum the novel is

change readers’ outlook on the world. Nussbaum claims that

‘a morally controversial form, expressing in its very shape

‘good literature is disturbing’ and that it ‘summons power-

and style, in its modes of interaction with its readers, a nor-

ful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust

mative sense of life. It tells its readers to notice this and not

of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful con-

this, to be active in these and not those ways. It leads them

frontation with one’s own thoughts and intentions’ (PJ 5). But

into certain postures of the mind and heart and not others’

what are those ‘modes of interaction’? Nussbaum explains

(PJ 2). Novels stress how differences in education or social

that they have to do with the style of the novel and illustrates

circumstances form a person’s character and their actions. By

this elaborately with the example of Charles Dickens’ novel

sketching such a broad context for human action the novel

Hard Times (1853). Nussbaum describes how Dickens manipu-

is ‘a paradigm of a style of ethical reasoning that is context-

lates our experience as readers through his style and choice

specific without being relativistic’ (PJ 8). In this respect the

of words. By presenting one character in an ironic manner

novel is a fine example of the kind of thinking governments

and another character in a sentimental way, he directs our

should deploy when dealing with their citizens and especially

sympathies and instructs us about which characters and



actions to approve of and of which to disapprove. In fact,

pact that reasons sometimes have on us as feeling persons.

‘the structure of the novel – its ways of presenting the world

We feel the force of reasons’ (Siegel 1997: 48) and this force

to us and its enticements to identify ourselves with certain

in turn moves us in a dual way: first, felt reasons “move” us

characters rather than others – set us up, if we respond to

in the sense that they are emotionally gripping; but second,

them, in a posture of the heart and mind that is not one of

they also “move” us in the sense that they can cause us to

sceptical indifference, that does not feel that anything at all

act in a certain way, literally putting us into motion to act. It

that happens to these people is as good as every other thing’

is clear that there is a degree of similarity between Rorty’s

(PJ 83). But this does not really explain anything. The effect

final vocabularies and Siegel’s felt reasons: in both cases we

that the novel has upon the reader is explained in terms of

are dealing with a kind of reasons for our actions that can-

certain stylistic strategies cunningly deployed by the author.

not be fully explained with reasons. We cannot argue for our

But a more fundamental explanation would make us under-

final vocabularies. Similarly, a felt reason is a reason with a

stand how such strategies and stylistic devices come about

surplus of visceral power that is itself not subject to reason: it

and why they are at all successful. Nussbaum does not really

is a feeling that attaches itself to the reason. But Siegel ap-

explain, she simply describes, albeit in great detail and with

pears to be aware of the fact that to simply speak of felt rea-

much sensitivity, the literary strategies the effectiveness of

sons without any further explanation is unsatisfactory for at

which needs to be explained. To say that the novel (or art in

one point he exclaims: ‘But what are “felt” reasons? Are they

general) moves us because the author (or any artist) has used

some weird sort of abstract entity, altogether different from

a series of stylistic devices designed to elicit certain emo-

more garden variety sorts of reasons?’ Clearly, they are not:

tions, feelings, and evaluations in the reader is circular. It

‘Felt reasons [...] are ordinary reasons whose power to move

begs the question what it is about these stylistic devices that

people is made obvious or manifest by the way in which

makes them effective. Why does art move us?

those reasons, and the person for whom they are reasons,

A similar problem arises in the work of another, less well-

are portrayed. Felt reasons are not a different kind of reasons:

known, philosopher. In Rationality Redeemed? (1997) Harvey

they are rather a particular kind of presentation of reasons’

Siegel makes a plea for rational education. Siegel feels a

(o.c. 52). But this simply begs the question: if felt reasons be-

good education should equip young people with the skills

come powerful through the way they are presented or pack-

they will need to reflect upon and justify their choices and

aged, we should like to know what it is about this packaging

beliefs in life. Siegel also feels that novels have an important

that makes these ordinary reasons so much more powerful

part to play in this project. To explain how novels do this he

as to pack an emotional wallop. This is a problem similar to

introduces the concept of “felt reasons”. Despite their ratio-

the one we found in Nussbaum. Both Nussbaum and Siegel

nal nature reasons sometimes have a visceral quality: their

claim that the emotive force of the novel and felt reasons

urgency can be deeply felt. This visceral quality is ‘the im-

respectively has something to do with the form in which they


are presented. Neither explains how and why these forms,

In Philosophy in a New Key (1942) and especially in Feeling and

these stylised presentations, are at all effective. Or, to put it

Form (1953) Langer proposes that we see art as a form of sym-

in a more general way: what is it about art that moves us?

bolisation: ‘Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human

And how does this come about? What does art (the novel, the

feeling’ (FF 40). But this definition immediately entails a new

poem, the special presentation of reasons) do to move us?

question, for what is a symbol? ‘A symbol,’ Langer states, ‘is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction’


Feeling and Form

(FF xi). So works of art are manmade objects that present us

The question of the nature of art was of central concern to

with an abstraction of human feeling. How must we under-

Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985) and her philosophy of living

stand this? Langer explains that symbols are ‘vehicles for the

form is a very good point of reference for the kind of discus-

conception of objects’ (PNK 60-61). She distinguishes concep-

sion upon which we are about to engage. In fact, Nussbaum

tions from concepts. ‘Concepts are abstract forms embodied

herself at times comes very near the kind of reasoning we

in conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated

find in Langer. In Love’s Knowledge she states that it is one

by so-called “abstract thought,” but in ordinary mental life

of her central claims ‘that there is, with respect to any text

they no more figure as naked factors than skeletons are seen

carefully written and fully imagined, an organic connection

walking the street. Concepts, like decent living skeletons,

between its form and its content’ (Nussbaum 1990: 4). Nuss-

are always embodied’ (PNK 61). So conceptions would seem

baum has stressed this organic connection repeatedly, as

to be more elaborate presentations of concepts. ‘A concept

when she claims that ‘in the reading of a literary text, there

is all that a symbol really conveys. But just as quickly as the

is a standard of correctness set by the author’s sense of life,

concept is symbolised to us, our own imagination dresses

as it finds its way into the work’ (o.c. 9). Unfortunately Nuss-

it up in a private, personal conception’ (PNK 71-72). If, for ex-

baum never really thinks through the organic metaphor for

ample, we think of a circle, we do not think of a concept (all

the way art works. Neither does she give a very satisfactory

the points in a field that are at the exact same distance from

account of how a “sense of life” may be present within a work

a given point) but we usually imagine a specific circle. The

beyond her claims about the stylistic devices used by authors

circle I have in mind may be smaller than the one you have

to steer the reader’s mind and feelings in a desired direction.

in mind, it might be drawn in a different colour than yours or

But these are exactly the kinds of issues Langer’s work does

against a different background, but whatever its imaginary

clarify. One of Langer’s central questions is how art moves

properties, it will still be a circle according to its geometrical

us. What kind of objects are works of art? What is their logi-

definition. The same thing applies when we think of the con-

cal structure and how does this structure affect the spectator

cept of a house. ‘Consider a photograph, a painting, a pencil

or reader? To answer these questions is to enter into a fresh

sketch, an architect’s elevation drawing, and a builder’s dia-

relationship with works of art.

gram, all showing the front view of one and the same house.



With a little attention, you will recognise the same house in

a periodic measure: it is the perceived connectedness of suc-

each representation [because] each one of the very different

cessive events. Langer now suggests that works of art ‘bear

images expresses the same relation of parts, which you have

a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling’ (FF

fastened on in formulating your conception of the house. [...]

27), which are rhythmic in the sense just explained. Langer’s

Likewise, another person’s conception of that same house

preferred example to illustrate this is music, which shows

will agree in its essential pattern with the pictures and with

us ‘forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stow-

your conception, however many private aspects it may have’

ing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement,

(PNK 71).

calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses – [...] the great-

So works of art are abstractions or symbols of conceptions of

ness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally

human feelings. To explain this Langer famously introduced

felt. Such is the pattern, or logical form, of sentience; and the

the term “living form”. Human life and feeling are filled with

pattern of music is that same form worked out in pure, mea-

movement. ‘All life is rhythmic’ (FF 126) and is subject to

sured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive

processes of flowering and decay, birth and death, and all

life. Such formal analogy, or congruence of logical structures,

physical and mental developments in-between. Langer here

is the prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and

makes very specific use of the word “rhythm,” which she de-

whatever it is to mean. The symbol and the object symbol-

fines as ‘a functional involvement of successive events’ (PA

ised must have some common logical form’ (ibid.). Living

52). This means that ‘a rhythmic pattern arises whenever the

form ‘expresses life – feeling, growth, movement, emotion, and

completion of one distinct event appears as the beginning of

everything that characterises vital existence’ (FF 82). As these

another. The classic example is the swinging of a pendulum.

statements suggest, ‘the word “feeling” must be taken here

The momentum of its drop drives the weight upward in the

in its broadest sense, meaning everything that can be felt, from

opposite direction, and builds up the potential energy that

physical sensation, pain and comfort, excitement and repose,

will bring it down again; so the first swing prepares the sec-

to the most complex emotions, intellectual tensions, or the

ond; the second swing was actually begun in the first one,

steady feeling-tones of a conscious human life’ (PA 15).

and similarly, after that, each swing is prepared by the one

Langer’s concept of living form invites two remarks. First, it

before. The result is a rhythmical series’ (PA 51). But rhythm

might seem questionable to define feeling in such a broad

need not be serial or periodic. Whenever an action or move-

way. But this is necessary to the enterprise, for since art can

ment seems to beget another, a sense of rhythm manifests

be and is about everything that falls within human experi-

itself. All succession is rhythmic, even if it is not periodic.

ence, any theory that tries to say anything about art will have

This explains ‘why a tennis player, a wheeling bird, and a

to embrace the full scope of human experience. It will be up

modern dancer who does not necessarily repeat any motion

to the subsequent theory to specify this in view of the indi-

may exhibit rhythm, too’ (PA 52). So the rhythm of life is not

vidual kinds of art. Second, it is of vital importance to stress



that Langer speaks of a logical similarity between life and art.

art, but not abstract art, is a contradiction in terms’ (HC 323).

This means that the relationship between art and the feel-

Obviously, Arendt was not writing about Expressionism as

ings it expresses is a formal relationship. This formal aspect

a movement in the history of art, but about expressiveness

brings up the question of expression. If art expresses human

in the literal sense of venting one’s emotions in an immedi-

feeling, we must understand what “expression” means here.

ate way. What is created in art is not self-expression (which

It is a common mistake to think that art is a direct expression

does not require creation or art at all) but expressive form,

of the artist’s personal feelings. When Langer claims that art

‘perceptible forms expressive of human feeling’ (PS 84). The

works are symbols and therefore abstractions, she introduces

artist has conceived of human feeling and found a form that

an element of distance. The artist does not express his feel-

expresses this feeling.

ings directly but seeks a formal analogue for them. He steps

Langer was not entirely original in her use of the term “living

back, contemplates the feeling he wants to express in his

form”. She explicitly conceives it as a further development

work and then sets about finding a fitting form. ‘What art

and refinement of Clive Bell’s infamous “significant form” (FF

expresses is not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling; as lan-

31-33). But the term “living form” itself already appears in the

guage does not express actual things and events but ideas of

work of Friedrich Schiller, who introduces it in the fifteenth

them’ (FF 59). So we must be wary of ‘the confusions between

letter of his epistolary treatise Über die ästhetische Erziehung

feeling shown and feeling represented, symptom and symbol’

des Menschen (1795). Schiller’s thoughts on art are structured

(FF 184). It is of paramount importance to keep in mind ‘that

dialectically. He conceived of humans as beings with two

the feeling in a work of art is something the artist conceived as

basic but conflicting drives, the material or “sense drive”

he created the symbolic form to present it, rather than some-

(‘Stofftrieb’) and the rational or “form drive” (‘Formtrieb’). The

thing he was undergoing and involuntarily venting in an ar-

sense drive spurs man towards life in its organic and sensual

tistic process’ (FF 176). This act of conceiving transforms the

sense. It is also linked to individual existence and concerns

feeling from something experienced into something represent-

everything that has to do with our own particular experience

ed. ‘But as soon as an expressive act is performed without in-

of being alive. The form drive, on the other hand, represents

ner momentary compulsion it is no longer self-expressive; it is

the universal element within us, the reason that is common

expressive in the logical sense. It is not a sign of the emotion

to all human beings. These two drives are in constant dynam-

it conveys, but a symbol of it; instead of completing the natu-

ic intercourse with each other, seeking the balance of human

ral history of a feeling, it denotes the feeling, and may merely

life to make sure that our lives are neither too focused on one

bring it to mind [...]. When an action acquires such a meaning

or the other. For Schiller, art has an important role to play in

it becomes a gesture’ (PNK 152). Hannah Arendt was point-

this balancing act because it always presents us a message

ing in the same direction when she declared, in a footnote in

(which pleases the rational form drive) in an attractive shape

her great book The Human Condition (1958), that ‘expressionist

(which is agreeable to the sense drive). As such, art is “living



form” (‘lebendige Gestalt’): a fusion of mind and matter, of rea-

present’ (PA 66). In her Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937)

son (and morality) with sensuality (or beauty). This dialectic

Langer had also spoken of ‘logical intuition’ as ‘the power of

of feeling (sense experience in a broad sense that comes very

discovering analogies’ (Innis 2009: 14). This formulation is

near Langer’s) and form (the higher meanings for which the

a clue to the fact that Langer’s concept of intuition is much

sense experience of the work of art is the vehicle) is the main

indebted to Gestalt psychology, which holds that ‘when sen-

theme throughout all of Schiller’s writings. It would also

sory elements are combined, they form some new pattern of

influence Hegel’s philosophy of art. And as we shall see in

configuration. Put together a group of musical notes, [...] and

Chapter Two, Hegel’s dialectical worldview resurfaces in Ar-

something new – a melody or a tune – emerges from their

thur C. Danto’s notion of “the transfiguration of the common-

combination, something that did not exist in any of the indi-

place,” which states that objects become works of art because

vidual elements (the notes). Stated succinctly: The whole is

meanings are embodied in them.

different from the sum of its parts’ (Schultz and Schultz 1996:

Langer calls the expressive form ‘an apparition given to

322). That is why Langer can say that we know the import of

our perception’ (o.c. 86). This takes us to the heart of what

a work of art by an act of intuition: the work of art is a Gestalt,

is at stake in her work. To make this clear we must turn to

something immediately perceived as a whole. In the first vol-

Langer’s concept of intuition. As early as The Practice of Phi-

ume of Mind she writes that a work of art ‘presents the sem-

losophy (1930) Langer wrote that intuition ‘is not a method,

blance of feeling so directly to logical intuition that we seem

but a natural phenomenon. It occurs; it cannot be invoked or

to perceive feeling itself in the work’ (MI 67). She even claims

taught. Moreover, its result is not knowledge, but that fun-

that ‘artistic import requires no interpretation; it requires a

damental experience which knowledge is about [...]. It is our

full and clear perception of the presented form’ (MI 84).

source of direct contact with the world’ (Innis 2009: 13-14).

It is a core tenet of Langer’s philosophy that ‘a work of art is

As Robert E. Innis explains in his survey of Langer’s work,

always a prime symbol,’ (FF 369) which is ‘the expression of

intuition ‘supplies us with the given in experience’ (o.c. 14).

human consciousness in a single metaphorical image’ (PA

This means that Langer conceives of intuition as our source

53). This symbol could ‘be analysed, in that its articulation

of felt experience. In the first volume of Mind (1967) she calls

may be traced and various elements in it distinguished; but

it ‘the basic intellectual function’ (MI 128) and compares it

it can never be constructed by a process of synthesis of ele-

to Locke’s ‘natural light’. In Problems of Art (1957), here she

ments, because no such elements exist outside it. They only

also refers to Locke, she calls it ‘the fundamental intellectual

occur in a total form’ (FF 369). Speaking of books Langer says

activity, which produces logical or semantical understand-

that they are ‘like a life: all that is in it is really of a piece’

ing. It comprises all acts of insight or recognition of formal

(PNK xi). ‘A work of art is a single, indivisible symbol,’ writes

properties, of relations, of significance, and of abstraction and

Langer, ‘although a highly articulated one; it is not, like a

exemplification. [...] Intuition is not true or false, but simply

discourse (which may also be regarded as a single symbolic



form), composite, analysable into more elementary symbols

ing that is not analysable into atomic parts. Put another way,

[...]. It may, indeed, be analysed, in that its articulation may

Langer is challenging the early Wittgenstein’s picture theory

be traced and various elements in it distinguished; but it can

of language and transforms it from the inside out. That is

never be constructed by a process of synthesis of elements,

why Robert E. Innis writes that Langer’s work deals with

because no such elements exist outside it. They only occur

‘meaning after language’ (Innis 2009: 48), although I would

in a total form’ (FF 369). Every good work of art is of a piece.

modify the expression to “meaning beyond language” because

This is related to the aspect of perception that is tradition-

Langer does not give up on language (after all, literature is

ally called hololepsis, the seizing of the whole that turns a

one of the great arts) but tries to show that meaning is pos-

work into something more than ‘a mere aggregate of separate

sible, and logically possible, beyond the limits of discursive

items’ (Armstrong 2000: 92). As John Armstrong explains,

language. To accomplish this, she broadens Wittgenstein’s

‘there is no sense in which a heap can be complete’ because

picture theory. Simply put, Wittgenstein’s theory says that

‘nothing in its own nature determines [its] maximum’ (ibid.).

sentences are propositions that logically represent a state of

To be complete, a work must have an internal dynamic that

affairs in the world. In this sense they are a logical picture

determines its limits. This is essentially what Aristotle meant

of reality. Words are names of things and sentences describe

when he said a good play should have a beginning, a middle,

how these things are related to each other. The truth-value

and an end. ‘His concern is with the way in which features

of a proposition depends upon the question whether a state

of the work can be seen to have internal qualities of develop-

of affairs in the outside world corresponds to its structure.

ment – a development which can be seen to start and can

Sentences that do not represent such a picture of the world

reach a conclusion. When the end does come, it has the char-

are essentially senseless. This means that all evaluative and

acter of finishing something rather than of being an arbitrary

expressive language, including ethics, aesthetics, religion,

halt. The end, as it were, makes sense in relation to what has

and metaphysics, are beyond the pale of meaning. In fact,

come before. Equally, the opening is not just a chance start

the only meaningful propositions are those of the natural

but seizes the origin of the process to be followed through’

sciences, which cannot say anything about what is really

(o.c. 93). As we shall see in a subsequent chapter, even works

important in life: love, art, religion. That is why Wittgenstein,

of art that are (partly) improvised or open-ended adhere to

after finishing the Tractatus (1921), felt he was through with

this structure because they are conceived to be improvised

philosophy, which was really a lot of talk about nothing. The

or open-ended. This is why a film indeed need not, as Godard

final proposition of his book famously states that ‘whereof

once quipped, produce beginning, middle, and end necessar-

one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (Tractatus 7;

ily in that order.

Sluga and Stern 1996: 11). Not because such things are not

Seeing the art symbol as a prime symbol means that Langer

important, but because language simply fails to communi-

accepts the possibility of a logical representation of mean-

cate anything meaningful about them. Langer would prob-



ably have amended this final proposition to ‘whereof one

not determined yet, because there are many possible ways of

cannot speak, thereof one must make religion, ritual, and,

developing the composition’ (FF 121). This development, the

most essentially, art’. Langer agrees with Wittgenstein that

composition of the work itself, will often be a process of trial

the human mind creates a picture of the world and that this

and error. But the commanding form will guide this process

picture is logical. But the logic that guides Langer’s idea of

as a kind of blueprint because it is ‘the general Gestalt [that]

picture-making is not the discursive logic of science, but the

serves as a measure of right and wrong, too much and too

symbolic logic of living forms. What cannot be said in discur-

little, strong and weak’ (FF 122). In this sense, the work of

sive language can be expressed metaphorically, in ritual and

art enforces its own rules. Writers sometimes speak of the

art. A work of art is also a picture of the world, but it is not a

universe of their novel and of the fact that this universe does

scientific picture. As Robert E. Innis has stated, ‘a picture for

not allow them to write whatever they please. This is exactly

her is a symbol, not a duplicate. It shares only “salient fea-

the kind of restriction the commanding form would impose

tures” with what it is a symbol of (PNK 68), a “certain propor-

upon an artist. Sometimes the artist will simply have a nag-

tion of parts” (69). Saliency is contrasted with irrelevancy’ (Innis

ging feeling that something about the work is not right and

2009: 40). There are many essential things in the world and in

will keep tinkering with it until this feeling is dispelled. Very

life which discursive projections cannot adequately express

often the commanding form will command the artist to “kill

or convey. These things open up the ‘unexplored possibility of

his darlings” in order to make the living form reach its full

a genuine semantic beyond the limits of discursive language’

potential. I suggest that it is something like the commanding

(PNK 86). Where language fails, man will look for other means

form that Nussbaum was referring to when she wrote about

of expression. Therefore, ‘the field of semantics is wider than

‘a standard of correctness set by the author’s sense of life, as

that of language’ (PNK 87).

it finds its way into the work’ (Nussbaum 1990: 9). But instead

Speaking of works of art as prime symbols, or Gestalten, im-

of looking for this standard of correctness within the formal

plies an organic view of their form. This view is obviously also

character of the work of art, Nussbaum tried to find it in the

present in Langer’s discussion of the creation of works of art.

supposed discursive nature of narrative.

To explain how works of art come about Langer introduces

Such a confusion of art with discourse as we find in Nuss-

the notion of “commanding form”, which is ‘the fundamental

baum is a common error. Art shares its symbolic nature with

feeling to be explored and expressed. This is “the work of art

language, but at the same time there is a profound difference

in the artist’s head.” As soon as he conceives this matrix of the

between language and art. Every language has a vocabulary

work-to-be, he knows what must be its general structure, its

and a syntax. Within the vocabulary words have fixed mean-

proportions, its degree of elaboration’ (FF 389). Once this com-

ings that can be retrieved in a dictionary. If we apply the

manding form has been conceived, the work of art ‘is implicit

rules of syntax we can combine the smaller symbols that are

there, although its final, completely articulate character is

words into larger symbols that are propositions. Any proposi-



tion or sentence is in turn a single symbol and may be taken

also explains why it is impossible to translate a work of art

to symbolise or refer to a state of affairs in the world. A third

into another medium. There are no basic elements like words

characteristic of language, based on the first two of vocabu-

and no syntax. Therefore one cannot translate a painting into

lary and syntax, is its translatability. It is possible to translate

a poem, a novel into a sculpture, or a musical suite into prose.

a proposition into another language by substituting the cor-

There is, however, one art form that does seem to translate

rect words and applying the appropriate syntactic rules in the

works of art in a successful way and that is the cinema,

other language. Neither of these three features applies to the

where films are often based on novels or plays. This is un-

arts. Art, as we saw, does not have discriminate constituent

derstandable since novels, plays, and cinema share the abil-

parts analogous to words. To be sure, a picture, like language,

ity to tell a story in a quasi-discursive way. These arts allow

‘is composed of elements that represent various respective

of progressive narrative exposition. Art forms where linear

constituents in the object; but these elements are not units

narration is less prominent are not usually made into films.

with independent meanings’ (PNK 94). A line or a blot of co-

One rarely hears, for instance, of poems being filmed. Obvi-

lour may signify something in a work of art, but taken in iso-

ously, cinematic variations on poetry or visual poems have

lation it is meaningless. A patch of brownish paint may sug-

been a stock in trade of the experimental cinema for decades,

gest a figure in the background within the painting, but seen

but such works are rarely narrative. In fact, when the main-

in isolation it is simply an indiscriminate patch of brownish

stream cinema does translate poetry to the screen, it is usu-

paint. As regards syntax, there are no rules one can follow to

ally narrative poetry such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, Le Morte

create a work of art. There are certainly techniques one can

d’Arthur, or even The Raven. But nobody has yet attempted

learn to master, but there is no guidebook or recipe to help

the cinematic version of Emily Dickinson’s verse. However,

you make a good work of art with these techniques. That is

most films that adapt literary sources have to simplify and

why Langer speaks of the creation of works of art rather than

reduce the scope of the original work to an extensive degree

of merely making them. ‘The difference between creation and

and end up being little more than illustrations of the story

other productive work is this: an ordinary object, say a shoe,

that was told in more depth in the original work. But illustra-

is made by putting pieces of leather together; the pieces were

tion is an applied art and it is typical of the applied arts that

there before. [...] A picture is made by deploying pigments on

form is a function of content. The function or the message

a piece of canvas, but the picture is not a pigment-and-can-

of the object is primary and the form has been designed to

vas structure. The picture that emerges from the process is a

facilitate the function in the smoothest and most agreeable

structure of space, and the space itself is an emergent whole

way possible. The form is shaped as a vehicle for function or

of shapes, visible coloured forms. Neither the space nor the

meaning. That does not mean illustration can never rise to

things in it were in the room before’ (PA 28).

the level of the creative arts; it can, but to do so it would need

Finally, the total reference of works of art as prime symbols

to retain its expressive power outside the context for which



it was created. That is probably why we now value as art all

in art, is fictional. What is created in the visual arts is an im-

kinds of well-designed furniture and tools from the past, be

age of space. ‘This virtual space is the primary illusion of all

it Art Deco chairs, Biedermeier furniture, or space-age lamps

plastic art. Every element of design, every use of colour and

from the not-so-distant psychedelic 1960s: these objects

semblance of shape, serves to produce and support and de-

are now appreciated mainly for their form and not for their

velop the picture space that exists for vision alone. Being only

practical use. They have become objects to look at rather than

visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which

objects to use.

we live’ (FF 72). This last point is of cardinal importance. Art is

Virtual Spaces

about creating an illusion, an image. Art is fiction and noth-

In Feeling and Form Langer systematically addresses each

ing in it is real. The characters in a performance of Hamlet die,

of the arts to define its primary illusion, which is the basic

but not the actors performing them. The pasture captured in

way in which living form is expressed in that form of art.

paint is not an actual place, it is a painted image. A bronze

The primary illusion of an art form is the basic structure of

figure of a king is not the king himself but his likeness.

expression that all instances of that art have in common. So

We shall return to the importance of the fictional in art in a

it is necessarily a very general description of what unites all

subsequent chapter, but for our present purposes it is impor-

instances of that form of art. But at the same time it must be

tant to stress that what is represented in a work of art is not

sufficiently specific to clearly tell this art form apart from all

coextensive with the real world. A painting is not a window

the others. The primary illusion is the basic structural way

with a view of the world. It is a representation and interpre-

in which a given art form communicates its message. And

tation of the world. It is an image of the world seen. ‘Virtual

before we return to our discussion of Nussbaum we shall

space, being entirely independent and not a local area in ac-

look at the primary illusion of the visual arts. ‘The purpose of

tual space, is a self-contained, total system. [...] If, therefore,

all plastic art is to articulate visual form,’ Langer writes, ‘and

the artist presents semblances of objects, people, landscapes,

to present that form – so immediately expressive of human

etc., it is for their visual values as portions of perceptual

feeling that it seems to be charged with feeling – as the sole,

space’ (FF 75). In fact, all the elements that an artist intro-

or at least paramount, object of perception. This means that

duces in his image of space ‘have the purpose of making space

for the beholder the work of art must be not only a shape

visible and its continuity sensible. The space itself is a projected

in space, but a shaping of space – of all the space that he is

image, and everything pictured serves to define and organ-

given’ (FF 71). The visual arts, which are painting (and draw-

ise it. Even representation of familiar objects, if it occurs, is

ing), sculpture, and architecture, create what Langer calls

a means to this end’ (FF 77). It is clear that virtual space is

virtual space, which is not experiential space (namely space as

always subjective, experienced space. Even figurative art is

it is physically present around us) but a visual representation

never simply about presenting a representationally accurate

of space. The space created in a work of art, like everything

image of what it represents. All art, including representa-



tional art, expresses a way of seeing the world, or a mode of

ture, windows, etc. Very few pictures are so large as to fill our

experiencing space, and hence the vantage point of a sub-

physical field of vision completely at normal distance, i.e. at a

ject. Taking Cézanne as her example Langer writes that ‘the

distance that lets us see the forms presented in them to best

transformation of natural objects into pictorial elements took

advantage. Yet a picture is a total visual field. Its first office

place in his seeing, in the act of looking, not the act of paint-

is to create a single, self-contained, perceptual space, that

ing. Therefore, recording what he saw, he earnestly believed

seems to confront us as naturally as the scene before our

that he painted exactly what “was there”’ (FF 78). This means

eyes when we open them on the actual world. That is to say,

that art aims at truthfulness not in the sense of representa-

the illusion created in pictorial art is a virtual scene. I do not

tional fidelity but in the sense of a truthful representation of

mean a “scene” in the special sense of “scenery” – the picture

what our lived experience feels like. Rather than simply pro-

may represent only one object or even consist of pure decora-

vide us with a carbon copy of reality, art shows us reality as it

tive forms without representative value – but it always cre-

is perceived. For the visual arts this means that they show us

ates a space opposite the eye and related directly and essentially to

not simply space but how we perceive and experience space.

the eye. That is what I call “scene.”’ (FF 86). We shall elaborate

This is especially clear in the case of Modernism, which was

this concept of scene in the next section, but before we turn

an explosion of individual movements that sought the basic

to that discussion we must briefly address the primary illu-

elements that would allow of a faithful representation of

sion of sculpture and architecture. ‘Sculpture,’ Langer writes,

the world. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism sought to

‘even when it is wedded to a background as in true relief, is

accurately represent the way we actually perceive colour and

essentially volume, not scene. The volume, however, is not a

shapes. And Cubism is essentially about the perception of

cubic measure, like the space in a box. It is more than the

objects in space, as David Hockney pointed out when he said

bulk of the figure; it is a space made visible, and is more than

that Cubism was ‘about saving the possibility of figuration [...] at

the area which the figure actually occupies. The tangible form

the moment of its greatest crisis, what with the onslaught of

has a complement of empty space that it absolutely com-

photography with all its false claims to be able to accomplish

mands, that is given with it and only with it, and is, in fact,

such figuration better and more objectively. It was about as-

part of the sculptural volume. The figure itself seems to have

serting all the things photography couldn’t capture: time,

a sort of continuity with the emptiness around it, however

multiple vantages, and the sense of lived and living experi-

much its solid masses may assert themselves as such. The

ence’ (Weschler 2008: xix).

void enfolds it, and the enfolding space has vital form as a

Langer describes the primary illusion of each of the three

continuation of the figure’ (FF 88).

main plastic arts. The primary illusion of painting is what

Where a painting is framed in the sense that it is a total visu-

Langer calls “scene”. ‘Physically, a picture is usually one of

al field upon itself, regardless of its surroundings, a sculptural

several things in our sight; it is surrounded by a wall, furni-

work ‘is a centre of three-dimensional space. It is a virtual



kinetic volume, which dominates a surrounding space, and

We can profitably illustrate Langer’s idea of the ethnic do-

this environment derives all proportions and relations from

main with what Christopher Alexander has called The Time-

it, as the actual environment does from one’s self. The work

less Way of Building (1979), which takes “pattern languages” as

is the semblance of a self, and creates the semblance of a

the key to architecture. Just like Langer, Alexander puts the

tactual space’ (FF 91). Sculpture is the centre of its space in

human experience at the heart of architecture. The timeless

the same way that we, as subjects, are the centre of our expe-

way of building is ‘a process which brings order out of noth-

riential space. We are the perceiving subject that is aware of

ing but ourselves’ (Alexander 1979: 3). This process ‘lies deep

an object world that surrounds us. But all perception is fo-

in us: and only needs to be released’ (o.c. 14). That is why it

cused in us, the subject at the centre of experience. Sculpture

can be called timeless: it is inscribed almost in our genetic

is an image of this experience of selfhood, commanding the

make-up because it is a way of building that arises out of our

space it inhabits from its centre. This engagement with the

being and our needs as human beings who are alive in the

surrounding space is taken a step further in architecture. ‘As

world. Rather than build from the requirements of a mod-

scene is the basic abstraction of pictorial art, and kinetic volume

ern society that seeks to make optimal use of the minimal

of sculpture, that of architecture is an ethnic domain. Actually,

amount of space to store people in boxes that harbour them

of course, a domain is not a “thing” among other “things”; it

while awaiting the next day of work, the timeless way of

is the sphere of influence of a function or functions’ (FF 95).

building seeks to conceive of buildings and towns from the

This introduction of function into a discussion of architecture

needs of human being. The quality that distinguishes such

should not mislead us into thinking Langer was an adherent

timeless places (and place, for Alexander, encompasses ev-

of functionalism in architecture. The functions that she aims

erything as small as a room or a doorway and as large as a

to highlight are quite simply the vital aspects of human liv-

house, a town, or a major city) is that ‘they live’ (o.c. 9). Alex-

ing. ‘A culture is made up, factually, of the activities of human

ander suggests several ways of describing the timeless way,

being; it is a system of interlocking and intersecting actions,

but in the final reckoning it seems to be about ‘our liveliness’

a continuous functional pattern. [...] The architect creates

(o.c. 122) in a decidedly Langerian sense: a timeless place is

its image: a physically present human environment that

a place that is expressive of life entirely felt. The structure,

expresses the characteristic rhythmic functional patterns

or what Alexander calls the pattern language, that underlies

which constitute a culture. Such patterns are the alternations

a place that is alive ‘covers the whole of life’ (o.c. 230) and is

of sleep and waking, venture and safety, emotion and calm,

‘a tapestry of life’ (o.c. 347). To determine whether a building

austerity and abandon; the tempo, and the smoothness or

is alive and fit for human living all we have to do is consider

abruptness of life’ (FF 96). In this sense architecture is ‘a uni-

its effect upon our feeling. It is feeling and feeling alone that

verse created by man and for man,’ it is ‘the spatial semblance

determines whether a place is alive. ‘We can always ask our-

of a world’ (FF 97).

selves just how a pattern makes us feel. And we can always



ask the same of someone else. [...] It is not the same, at all,

stress of failure, of not being good enough, of never being al-

as asking someone his opinion. [...] It is also not the same as

lowed to be oneself. One must always check one’s behaviour

asking for a person’s taste. [...] And it is also not the same as

and be aware of the fact that the world is looking in. This is

asking what a person thinks of an idea. [...] It simply asks for

incredibly stressful, up to the point that it can make a person

feelings, and for nothing else’ (o.c. 290-291).

depressed. In any case, it will have a negative effect upon a

Since it is our feeling that determines aliveness, it is a quality

person’s performance, because people who are ill at ease are

that we can all recognise in buildings. For example, schools

never happy workers.

often make us feel uncomfortable and ill at ease just being

What kind of structure must a place have to be in any sense

there. This is often due to the fact that many schools were

alive rather than dead? Alexander claims that ‘every place

never built or designed for human living but for purposes of

is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep

surveillance, conditioning, and the inhibition of free move-

on happening there’ (o.c. 55). This reads like an almost literal

ment. Many schools are built to expose their inhabitants to

rendering of Langer’s principle of an ethnic domain, which is

the gaze of power. This often happens, quite perversely, in

determined by ‘characteristic rhythmic functional patterns’

the name of transparency or a sense of community. For ex-

(FF 96). And a building’s character is essentially determined

ample, many classrooms, especially in older school buildings,

by what happens there most often. For example, the structure

still have windows along the corridor, so that anyone pass-

of a family home should be determined by the rhythms of

ing in the hallway can see everything that happens within

family life, which includes such everyday acts as sleeping,

the classroom. This kind of transparency can put enormous

eating, resting, living together, taking showers, doing laundry,

stress, if not on the students, then on the teacher, who might

cooking, doing homework, repairing a bike, etc. Any build-

live with the daily fear of being exposed if a class is difficult

ing or town that is alive is thus created from the ‘fabric of

to handle and anyone passing can see their inability to keep

relationships’ that runs through them. This fabric ‘is the stuff

the group in check. The terror of visibility is built into many

that actually repeats itself’ in that place (Alexander 1979: 89).

schools, as it is built into many public buildings (just think

For a town or larger city this means that the structure and

of working environments where individual offices have glass

width of streets will be determined by their organic function

walls, making them look like cabinets or small cages in which

in the greater whole. Some roads are veritable arteries within

people seem to be both trapped and exposed). This is the

the fabric of a city, whilst others are simply narrow streets

inhumanity of much public building: instead of sheltering

lined with grocery shops. Similarly, on the small scale of the

us, it exposes us to something much more damaging than

family home, the kitchen should be structured around the

the natural elements, namely human cruelty. To be exposed

recurrent relationships between cooking, eating (and how

at all times to the gaze, and especially to the judging gaze,

we eat), being together for meals, and the storage of food,

of others and of one’s superiors, is to live under the constant

amongst others. The relationships that determine the alive-



ness of the kitchen are simply the activities that happen

to spend time with her children. The result of such situations

there most often and recurrently. These activities determine

is misery and unhappiness. A vivid memory I have of being

the quality (the sense of aliveness) of the place. And the

home sick from school as a child, is the silence in the neigh-

place will only feel alive as a kitchen if its structure allows of

bourhood and the occasional sounds of my mother’s pres-

all these activities. It will not do to simply cramp a stove, a

ence in the house. Otherwise, nothing could be heard. During

sink, some cupboards, and a table into a small room to pro-

the daytime, whole neighbourhoods seem to be deserted

duce a kitchen. For every place ‘there is a fundamental inner

areas. Homes are left abandoned, empty places that simply

connection between each pattern of events, and the pattern

spend the day waiting for someone to come home again. Be-

of space in which it happens’ (o.c. 92). Thus, every building,

cause such neighbourhoods are designed for the sole purpose

every neighbourhood, and every city is defined, ‘in everything

of providing “pleasant housing” (whatever that may be) for

that matters, by the patterns which keep on repeating there’

families, they end up being excluded from the fabric of every-

(o.c. 95).

day life. Every day people have to make the excursion to the

Our sense of life and our sense of well-being are determined

centre of town to do the shopping. Such towns are compart-

by the surroundings in which we have to (or may be doomed

mentalised. Furthermore, the crucial human activity of work

to) live out that life. ‘The specific patterns out of which a

has often been excised from them and transplanted to the

building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the ex-

bigger cities, abandoning life in the town (or in the suburbs)

tent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us

to diurnal dreariness.

free; but when they are dead they keep us locked in inner

But the deadness or aliveness of a place is not simply deter-

conflict’ (o.c. 101). In fact, ‘a person is so far formed by his

mined by such macroscopic elements. The smallest structural

surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on

detail of a place is crucial. A fine example are windows. Imag-

his harmony with his surroundings’ (o.c. 106). For instance,

ine an apartment bedroom with only one window looking out

in towns ‘where work and family life are physically separate,

into an air-shaft. All one sees are brick walls and other dreary

people are harassed by inner conflicts which they can’t es-

windows with the curtains drawn. No natural daylight ever

cape’ (o.c. 107-108). A person who lives in a neighbourhood of

enters the room, which is dark and damp, a dreadful place

family houses, such as many suburbs or small communities,

that is hardly conducive to a good night’s rest. Such windows

must commute to work and will come home at night feeling

are not windows at all: they are simply holes in the wall. A

tired and stressed. Children come home from work to find

crucial pattern in the pattern language of the home is there-

the house empty, and when their parents do arrive, they are

fore “the light on two sides pattern,” which says that any

irritable, stressed, and pressed for time. Similarly, a woman

room should have at least two windows in opposite walls, to

who wants to be a working mother will find herself having to

assure a continual presence of natural light in the place. ‘At

make impossible choices between her career and her desire

one time,’ Alexander writes, ‘it would have been unthinkable


to build any room, except a stable or a workshed, without

ing in particular, modern art is essentially about representing

windows on two sides. In our own time, all knowledge of

subjective point of view. And as David Hockney pointed out, it

this pattern is forgotten. Most rooms, most buildings, have

is Cubism that was probably most successful at this because

light from one side only. And even a “great” architect like Le

it let go of one-point perspective. Kepler reportedly once said

Corbusier, builds whole apartments, long and narrow, with

that painters are ‘educated into blindness’ through linear

windows only at the narrow end [...] with terrible glare and

perspective because it is an unnatural way of looking (Hyman

discomfort as results’ (o.c. 234-235). In fact, Alexander more

1998: 159). Hockney would certainly concur. Nobody in the

than once offers Le Corbusier as an example of how not to

real world ever perceives the world the way it is in a Vermeer

build housing. ‘Le Corbusier’s radiant city [...] actively makes

painting. We are constantly passing through the world and

us feel bad. It may excite our intellect, or our imagination; but

our vantage point is constantly shifting. Moreover, the field

when we ask ourselves how we shall feel in a place which is

of focus of our eyes is limited, which means that our eyes

really built like this, we know again, that it will not make us

are constantly moving about and bringing new details of the

feel wonderful. Again, our feeling is the way our knowledge of

world into focus. Just put two pens in front of you on the ta-

its functional emptiness presents itself to us’ (o.c. 289).

ble, about twenty centimetres apart. Then try looking at them

Fields of Vision

pen and then jump to the other. This is the way we perceive

What ties the three modes of virtual space together is the

and it is this mode of perception that was being expressed in

structurally implied point of view. Scene, kinetic volume,

Cubism, which tried to bring together in a two-dimensional

and ethnic domain are all organised from the point of view

plane the many aspects and acts of perception that consti-

of a subject, a perceiver. This is the human point of view, the

tute our integrated sense of the world.

human measure of things. In architecture it is the functions

This means that the supposed distortion we find in Cub-

of human life that organise the domain. In sculpture the

ist painting is not distortion at all: it is a profound form of

structure of the piece functions as a semblance of selfhood,

realism, very true to life in its expression of sight and of

structuring space around it as we structure the space around

our experience of space. ‘People complained about Picasso,’

us through our sentient presence in it. And painting always

Hockney told Lawrence Weschler, ‘how he distorted the

represents point of view because something is always shown

human face. I don’t think there are any distortions at all.

from a vantage point. Even if the work is abstract, this ab-

For instance, those marvellous portraits of his lover Marie-

straction is always the result of a process of reflection on how

Thérèse Walter which he made during the thirties; he must

we perceive, on what are the essentials of perception, or even

have spent hours with her in bed, very close, looking at her

on how we would perceive (and therefore can conceive of)

face. A face looked at like that does look different from one

the sublime, the divine, the metaphysical. Looking at paint-

seen at five or six feet. Strange things begin to happen to the

both at the same time. You cannot. Your eyes first look at one




eyes, the cheeks, the nose – wonderful inversions and repeti-

the experience of space,’ (o.c. 112) he said about these works. A

tions. Certain “distortions” appear, but they can’t be distor-

point of departure for a discussion of this aspect of his work

tions because they’re reality. Those paintings are about that

might be Santa Monica Blvd. (1979), a huge canvas that was

kind of intimate seeing. [...] Analytic Cubism in particular [...]

left incomplete. In it Hockney tried to paint the panorama of

was about perception – about the difficulty of perception. I’ve

what one could see cruising down Santa Monica Blvd. The

recently been reading a lot of books about Cubism, and I keep

driver moving at a slow pace through the streets is like a

coming upon discussions of intersecting planes and so forth,

latter-day version of Baudelaire’s flâneur, taking in the sights

as if Cubism were about the structure of the object. But re-

from his crib of chrome with leather furnishings. The paint-

ally, it’s rather about the structure of seeing the object. If there

ing itself is a collage of sights and details that Hockney had

are three noses, this is not because the face has three noses,

photographed and then collaged together to make one inte-

or the nose has three aspects, but rather because it has been

grated painting. But he was displeased with the result. When

seen three times, and that is what seeing is like’ (Weschler

he returned to the motif of the visual cruise through scenery,

2008: 22-23). Pierre Bonnard, although not a Cubist, is a great

the results were quite different. The expansive Mulholland

master in this rendering of the searching eye. Consider the

Drive: The Road To The Studio (1980) has let go of traditional

many paintings of his wife Marthe, made within the enclo-

one-point perspective and shows the landscape as it pre-

sure of their home (due to illness, Marthe was confined to

sented itself to Hockney on his daily drive to his studio. It is a

the house for the better part of twenty years). Especially the

collage of aspects and vistas that are assembled next to each

paintings made in the bathroom show Bonnard looking for a

other in a Cubist manner. Hockney has stressed that this way

vantage point that captures the experience of being in there

of painting is ‘more realistic than you might think. When

with her. In an impressive series of three late Baignoires the

you look at Mulholland Drive – and “Drive” is not the name

bathroom is almost reduced to an abstract play of colours

of the road, but the act of driving – your eye moves around

and forms. Perspective is constantly being anamorphosed

the painting at about the same speed as a car drives along

and distorted, being painted from impossible bird’s-eye view

the road’ (Hockney 1993: 67). Just like Picasso and Bonnard,

or from distances that appear unreal within the confines of

Hockney is trying in Mulholland Drive to convey the constantly

a room. Bonnard abandons linear perspective and paints the

shifting field of vision of the eye in movement. The result is

actual experience of looking, the way the eye roves through

in a very literal sense a field of vision, flattened out, almost

space and registers details that are then assembled into our

the way a child might draw a street, with houses flat along

experience of that space. Eyesight is never linear, it is always

both sides of the street, or with several aspects of a building


piled one on top of the other. Hockney produced several other

In his paintings and photographic collages of the 1980s David

pieces conveying this sense of actual perception. A Visit with

Hockney undertook a similar project. ‘I’m trying to convey

Christopher and Don, Santa Monica Canyon (1984), for example,



takes us on an experiential tour of the home of Christopher

experience of the world’ (o.c. 10). ‘The general perspective

Isherwood and Don Bachardy, supposedly distorting space in

[of these composite images] is built up from hundreds of

order to make it more expressive of actual lived experience.

micro-perspectives’ (o.c. 20). But by mid-May 1981 Hockney

The space around the house and the rooms within it appear

had abandoned the Polaroids and moved on to traditional

to have been folded open and welded together, along with

photographs, which came with the added advantage that

the constantly shifting view of the surrounding landscape,

they did not have a white frame around the image. Hockney

to create a dynamic impression of what it is actually like to

now started to assemble immensely complex photo-collages

move up to and about in the house. Interestingly, the Dutch

that were meant to convey the actual experience of looking

experimental filmmaker Frans Zwartjes had earlier created

at space. This meant that the images would have to translate

similar visual effects in his short films, notably the film Living

how we experience space as our eyes move through it, from

(1971) in which he takes us on a guided tour of his new home

one point of focus to the next, assembling a sense of the

by holding his camera at arm’s length from his own face

overall space in the mind. ‘Everything we look at is in focus

and having it tilt and turn in all directions, an almost literal

as we look at it,’ Hockney explains. ‘Now, the actual size of

expression of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view of the self as a

the zone the eye can hold in focus at any given moment is

transparent eyeball, inviting us to turn our eyes upside down

relatively small in relation to the wider visual field, but the

to view the world in a fresh way (Sitney 2008: 7-8).

eye is always moving through that field and the focal point of

Hockney next took this new way of looking at space into

view, though moving, is always clear’ (o.c. 31). By using indi-

photography, which is the medium most closely connected to

vidual photographs to capture one such focal point of view,

(and structurally determined by) one-point perspective. His

Hockney could assemble large numbers of such photographs

first photographic experiments were made with a Polaroid

into overall impressions of a space. He soon found that this

camera. Hockney would photograph several aspects and de-

also allowed him to introduce an element of time in the im-

tails of his subject and afterwards assemble the Polaroid pic-

ages. Since the photographs were taken one at a time and

tures in a grid that offered a general overview of the subject,

since the eye of the viewer can only look at one photograph,

almost as if the complete picture had been made from one

or a limited cluster of photographs, at a time, the eye is con-

perspective. Only on closer inspection does it become clear

stantly moving over the composite image, travelling through

that every separate image has its own perspective. Hockney

space and time. In this way the composite image actually

correctly (and in Cubist tradition) assumed that this way of

conveys the experience of being in a room with other people,

looking was truer to life than linear perspective. ‘I realised

where several things happen at the same time. The fact that

that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see,

these many things are all captured in individual (clusters of)

which is to say, not all at once but rather in discrete, sepa-

photographs allows the viewer to see everything in detail

rate glimpses, which we then build up into our continuous

(and in focus), which he would not be able to do if he were



actually present at the event. It is as if, in such collages, we

for example, The Scrabble Game, Jan. 1, 1983 (1983). This shows

are allowed to endlessly walk around in one moment of time

a group of people, including Hockney’s mother, engaged in

that is made to stand still for us. But in its overall impression,

a game of Scrabble. Each participant’s face has been photo-

the image does feel like it is an entirely realistic representa-

graphed at several moments in time, but the resultant pic-

tion of how we actually experience a room and the people in

tures have been assembled to create a dynamic impression

it in the moment. This, Hockney says, allowed him to deal with

of their faces as they move through different expressions

people’s ‘liveliness’ (o.c. 27). Instead of having to sit still, his

and moods. Since the collage was assembled through time,

models could now simply go about their business as Hockney

the game of Scrabble can even be reconstructed, with several

snapped away with his camera.

pictures showing how the words aggregate on the board (We-

Initially, Hockney would include his own feet in such collages

schler 2008: 39). Similarly, Luncheon at the British Embassy, To-

to ‘plant’ both the image and the viewer in a specific point

kyo, Feb. 16, 1983 (1983) gives an impression (made from Hock-

of view. From this vantage point he would take in the scene

ney’s seat at the table) of a dinner party and its several guests

and translate it into a collage expressive of the actual experi-

as perceived from one point of view. The image strongly re-

ence of looking at the scene; that is to say, not one overall

calls Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Le Déjeuner (1876), an op-

image created through linear perspective, but an assembly of

pressively melancholy depiction of the elaborate dinner table

individual points of focus that, in themselves, are made with

at the home of the artist’s mother, painted from the vantage

linear perspective (that is to say, with a camera), but which

point of the artist himself. Like many of Caillebotte’s other

together do not add up to anything resembling such a tra-

paintings the image has a heavily anamorphosed perspective

ditional perspective. Impressive examples are both Sitting in

that is reminiscent of the way straight lines can become bent

the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, Feb. 1983 (1983) and

in a photograph. We see this ravine-like tilt of space also in

Walking in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, Feb. 1983

his famous depiction of Rue de Paris; temps de pluie (1877) and

(1983). The former image shows an impression of the tem-

in his mighty Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (1875) (see Distel et al.

ple’s raked garden from one point of view, the latter gives an

1995: 194, 116, 148).

impression of the garden as Hockney is walking through it.

Hockney’s greatest masterpiece in this kind of collage is un-

‘When I first pieced them together,’ Hockney says, ‘I thought I

doubtedly Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986 (Second Version)

had made a photograph without perspective’ (Hockney 1993:

(1986), ‘a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point per-

100). Equally impressive are the highly subjective views of

spective’ (Hockney 1993: 112) that looks almost like a paint-

everyday places, such as his impression of a Telephone Pole,

ing of a stretch of highway in the desert, with some traffic

Los Angeles, Sep. 1982 (1982). As Hockney’s prowess in this new

signs, several trees, and some litter on the side of the road.

manner of photographic collage grew, the images became

Hockney explains that ‘it took me two days out there at that

more and more complex, and more and more lifelike. Take,

intersection in the desert to photograph all of those details;



I had to climb on a ladder, for example, to get the head-on

may be limited in scope, but we never see anything in a blur

shots of the stop sign, and for that matter to get the proper

(at least not under normal conditions and with healthy eyes):

down-gazing vantages of the foreground asphalt. Those beer

what the eyes see, they see in focus.

cans to the side, I had to get right up close to them and then

This brief overview of Hockney’s experiments in painting and

photograph them from an angle which subsequently would

photography can hope to convey but a small portion of the

meld with all the surrounding shots I was taking. And all of

artist’s insights in the art of representing the actual felt expe-

that is what accounts for the sense of immediacy, of close-

rience of space and sight. But it has convinced Hockney that

ness, of being right there’ (Weschler 2008: 176). Hockney’s

Cubism is probably the most important thing that happened

investigations into vision would eventually lead him to a

in the art of the twentieth century and that it is the aesthetic

revolutionary insight in the visual techniques of great paint-

question that contemporary art will have to return to sooner

ers of the past. This is his famous hypothesis, formulated in

or later because too many issues are still left unresolved. To

his book Secret Knowledge (2001), that artists of the past would

his mind, abstract and conceptual art, which would come to

sometimes use a camera obscura and other optical devices

dominate art in the latter half of the twentieth century, are

to help them achieve realistic effects in their paintings. Al-

temporary excursions and not the major line that art should

though controversial, Hockney’s argument is often extremely

be following. ‘The great misinterpretation of twentieth cen-

persuasive. It also overturned the traditional view of early

tury art is the claim advanced by many people, especially

masters as “primitives,” especially in the case of the Flemish

critics, that Cubism of necessity led to abstraction, that Cub-

primitives. With regard to Van Eyck’s famous altar piece with

ism’s only true heritage was this increasing tendency toward

the Adoration of the Lamb (ca. 1432), Hockney suggests that the

a more and more insular abstraction. But on the contrary,

Flemish master’s approach of the canvas might have been

Cubism was about the real world. [...] I mean, several paths

quite similar to the technique Hockney used on Pearblossom

led out from those initial discoveries of Picasso and Bracque,

Highway. ‘I’m convinced Van Eyck was doing something re-

and abstraction was no doubt one of them. [...] But still you

markably similar, pulling in close for each face in the crowd,

have to ask yourself, why didn’t Picasso and Bracque, who

for each clump of trees, for each flower, and then feathering

invented Cubism, ever follow that path? And I suspect that

all of those vanishing points one atop the next’ (ibid.). The

it’s because sitting there in Paris back in the early 1910s, play-

immense detail in Early Flemish Primitive painting is, ac-

ing out the various possibilities in their minds, they could

cording to Hockney, due to ‘hundreds of individual vantages,

already see that abstraction led into a cul-de-sac, eventually

one after the next, bringing every detail up close’ (o.c. 175).

even just an empty room, and they didn’t need to do it to find

The result is an image of great clarity and overall sharpness.

out. I mean, the urge to depict and the longing to see depic-

In fact, ‘the convention of the blur comes from photography’

tions is very strong and very deep within us. [...] And a long-

(o.c. 38): in real life everything we see is in focus. The focus

ing like that doesn’t just disappear in one generation. Art is


about making correspondences – making connections with

ing to say? And: What is the poet trying to make us feel?’ (FF

the world and to each other. It’s about love in that sense –

208-209). But this approach, which we find in Nussbaum, goes

that is the origin of the erotic quality of art. We love to study

against common sense because ‘every critic who is worth his

images of the world, and especially images of people, our

salt has enough literary intuition to know that the way of say-

fellow creatures. And the problem with abstraction, finally, is

ing things is somehow all-important’ (FF 208). After all, if the

that it goes too far inwards and the links become tenuous, or

object of literature is merely to communicate information or

dissolve, and it becomes too hard to make those connections.

to inspire adequate feelings and attitudes (“postures of the

You end up getting these claims by some of the formalist

heart and mind,” as Nussbaum calls them) in the reader, then

critics that art just isn’t for everybody – but that’s ridiculous’

why write literature in the first place? Why not simply state

(o.c. 50).

one’s case in plain language? Why create a work of literary art? Moreover, much poetry and quite a bit of narrative fiction


Virtual Life

is not easy to understand: does the poetic or narrative form

If we are to address the shortcomings we perceived in Nuss-

not hamper rather than facilitate the swift communication

baum’s pragmatic approach to literature we must now look

of ideas? Does it not endanger the presumed pragmatic func-

at how Langer sees expressive form at work in literary works

tions of language? If all one wants is to communicate, why do

of art. Langer puts poetry at the heart of her discussion of

it in such a roundabout and often absurdly embellished way?

literature but maintains that the basic principles at work in

The answer, obviously, is that literature does not aim at com-

poetry can easily be extended to the novel or any other work

munication at all. For this reason, Langer avoids speaking of

of literature. Right from the start Langer points to the lure

art’s “meaning” and prefers to speak of its import, because the

of the discursive: ‘The reason why literature is a standard

expressiveness of a work of art ‘is conveyed’ rather than com-

academic pursuit lies in the very fact that one can treat it

municated (PA 60 and 67). This distinction becomes especially

as something else than art. Since its normal material is lan-

crucial when dealing with literature, which uses language,

guage, and language is, after all, the medium of discourse, it

the very instrument of discursive thought, as its instrument.

is always possible to look at a literary work as an assertion of

But a poet or novelist ‘uses discourse to create an illusion, a

facts and opinions, that is, as a piece of discursive symbol-

pure appearance, which is a non-discursive symbolic form.

ism in the usual communicative way. [...] It is a truism for

The feeling expressed by this form is neither his, nor his he-

modern pragmatists that there are only two essential func-

ro’s, nor ours. [...] He has made an illusion, as complete and

tions of language (however much they talk about its many,

immediate as the illusion of space created by a few strokes

many uses), namely to convey information, and to stimulate

on paper [...]. He has made an illusion by means of words

feelings and attitudes in the hearer. The leading questions

[...]. But what he creates is not an arrangement of words, for

of poetry criticism, therefore, must be: What is the poet try-

words are only his materials, out of which he makes his poetic



elements. [...] The poet’s business is to create the appearance

we can experience directly), we do not yet know how all our

of “experiences,” the semblance of events lived and felt, and

experiences connect. I cannot know that the man I met this

to organise them so they constitute a purely and completely

afternoon will turn out to be the love of my life. In fact, it is

experienced reality, a piece of virtual life’ (FF 211-212). This,

possible that I hardly noticed him or heartily disliked him on

then, is the artistic import and primary illusion of the liter-

our first meeting. It is only many years from now that this af-

ary arts: they express the experience of life entirely felt. To

ternoon will take on the form of “the afternoon I met my fu-

do this, the literary artist uses words just like the visual art-

ture husband”. It is only with hindsight that we see connec-

ist uses lines and colours. As we stressed earlier, the work of

tions, reasons, or larger biographical narratives. It is only near

art is a total reference and none of its elements has mean-

the end of a life, or after a considerable part of life has been

ing outside of the total reference. This applies equally to the

lived, that a person can look back upon that life and write a

words used in a work of literature. It is obviously true that all

coherent (auto)biographical narrative. ‘Past experience, as we

the words used also have meaning outside the literary work:

remember it, takes on form and character, shows us persons

this is the meaning (or the meanings) we can find in the dic-

instead of vague presences and their utterances, and modi-

tionary. But outside of the literary work the words have none

fies our impressions by knowledge of things that came after,

of the import they have within it: a dictionary can tell us what

things that change one’s spontaneous evaluation. Memory is

a word means in general discourse, but it can never explain

the great organiser of consciousness. [...] It is the real maker

how the word functions and which feelings it conveys in the

of history – not recorded history, but the sense of history it-

fabric of a specific work of literature. And in that sense the

self, the recognition of the past as a completely established

words do indeed lose their (work-specific) meaning or import

(though not completely known) fabric of events, continuous

outside the total reference of the work.

in space and time, and causally connected throughout’ (FF

But we must explain how literature goes about creating vir-

262-263). This also implies that the past tense enables us to

tual life. How does it create the felt experience of life entirely

reflect upon history, because we can only evaluate events if

lived? Several aspects come into play and with regard to nar-

we have an overview of the entire fabric in which they are

rative prose, and especially the novel, the element of tense

integrated. The past tense also helps create a sense of dis-

is paramount. Novels are usually written in the past tense

tance which is crucial to the aesthetic experience: it conjures

because this is the tense of memory. If a novel is to tell a life

up the past, and in the case of the novel the virtual life that

or to tell a series of events, it must construct a history. In

is being offered for our perception, as a whole: ‘the mode in

this, the novel resembles memory: it endeavours to create

which events appear is the mode of completed experience,

‘a perception of the whole history as a fabric of contributive

i.e. of the past. This explains why the normal tense of literary

events. Actual experience has no such closed form’ (FF 262).

narration is the past tense’ (FF 264).

When we experience the present (and the present is really all

In a work of literature, as in any other work of art, life is



presented in an enclosed form that is not coextensive with

to switch the reader’s or hearer’s attitude from conversational

the real world in which we live. The novel is fiction and the

interest to literary interest, i.e. from actuality to fiction’ (FF

narrative presentation is a framing device that makes clear

213) so that ‘the reader is confronted at once with a virtual

that what is presented is not a real event but a virtual event.

order of experiences’ (FF 214). It is common knowledge that

‘Literary events are made, not reported, just as portraits are

lovers of literature will often read the first line of a novel

painted, not born and raised’ (FF 257). This element of fram-

before purchasing it. This makes perfect sense: if the first

ing should be well understood. It refers exclusively to the fact

line does not draw one into the fabric of the virtual world

that the world represented in a work of art is not an exten-

presented in the novel, one is not likely to persevere for the

sion of the real world. So the frame that cuts a work of art off

many following pages. A particularly fine example of a first

from the real world is the very fact of its being a work of art. This

line that immediately establishes an entire fictional world

applies equally to all the arts. The room depicted in a paint-

can be found in Virginia Woolf’s great modernist novel Mrs

ing is not an extension of the room in the museum where

Dalloway (1925): ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers

the picture is hung. The painting is framed not because there

herself.’ This sentence does many things at once. By using a

happens to be a wooden frame around it but because it cre-

passive construction in the past tense, the events are imme-

ates a virtual space in itself and all of its own. Similarly, the

diately framed at a distance. The elegance of the short sen-

virtual space created by dancers on a stage is not coextensive

tence gives the illusion of something entirely self-contained:

with the space of the spectators in the theatre. As Langer

it is a marvel of concise expression. It also gives one a feeling

points out (and as we shall discuss at greater length in Chap-

of who this Mrs Dalloway is, for there is a sense of decisive-

ter Three), the dance creates a relation of forces in which the

ness in the utterance. Even in the passive she seems to speak

dancers seem to magnetise and attract each other: a virtual

with conviction. She is mistress of the house, something

space with no ties to the surrounding world (FF 175-176). So

which is also made clear by referring to her formally as “Mrs

framing has nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or

Dalloway,” although we will presently get to know her more

absence of an actual frame around the work of art. Simply

intimately as Clarissa. The sentence is at once distanced

by being presented as a work of art, namely something ficti-

and engaged with its subject. And it immediately propels us

tious, a virtual reality, the work of art is framed, cut off from

into the narrative for the use of the definite article to refer to

the everyday. So we may say that the frame is the fictional

“the” flowers implies that everyone in the virtual world of the

character of the work. Michael Polanyi, speaking of framing

novel knows which flowers are referred to, that there is a very

in literature, says that ‘the frame and the story embody each

specific reason for buying the flowers, and that this reason

other’ (Polanyi and Prosch 1975: 87): the work is framed by

is known to all relevant parties in the virtual world. So we

virtue of its being a virtual presentation.

are alerted to the fact that we are about to find out what the

Framing starts with the very first line of the work, ‘which has

flowers are for, why they are needed, and why Mrs Dalloway



announces so decidedly that she will get them herself. Final-

is successful we enter into it and imaginatively supplement

ly, and most brilliantly, the sentence encompasses the entire

other features. But even in our mind there is never an entire-

scope of the novel, for much of the subsequent life in the

ly detailed picture of the virtual world: we are happy to have

novel will consist in a stream of consciousness presentation

an overall sense or feel of the place. Once we have entered

of Clarissa Dalloway’s impressions, feelings, and thoughts as

into the novel, the fabric of its virtual world seems to weave

she journeys through London to get the flowers in question.

itself. That is why it was so apt of Clive Barker to situate the

Interestingly, once the virtual world of a novel is created, the

fantastical parallel world of his novel Weaveworld (1987) in

author need not go into detail about its individual proper-

the images depicted in the fabric of a carpet: the world he

ties. The reader will supply much of the material that is not

creates is embedded in an actual tapestry that can be read as

explicitly mentioned. Many novels do not bother to give us a

a metaphor for the creative act itself.

detailed outline of the scenery through which the characters

The fabric of the virtual world must be successfully created

move and a novel does not lose its vividness if we as read-

or the novel fails to capture our imagination. And once it

ers are not familiar with the detailed geography of the city in

is created it is not easy to isolate elements from the fabric

which it is set. Similarly, novels rarely elaborate on the furni-

without losing their artistic or emotive import. That is why,

ture, curtains, wallpaper, or other decorative aspects of each

when we look up a favourite passage in a novel, it sometimes

and every room the characters enter. Such details are only

seems colourless and unconvincing when read in isolation.

supplied when they are necessary for the fabric of the virtual

What seemed imaginative, lively, and highly original on the

world. Once the sense of life has been created, the reader’s

first reading, may even seem pedestrian on rereading. The

imagination will fill in the gaps. This means that no two read-

reason for this is that our first reading was embedded in our

ers will read exactly the same novel. But that is no matter, for

experience of the entire virtual world. The bare words were

all the details that do matter are mentioned. We may ad lib

doubly enhanced on that occasion: they were enhanced by

the rest at will. This is especially important in relation to the

their inclusion in the work of art made with words and by

more fantastical genres in literature such as fantasy or sci-

our engagement with the virtual world thus created. When

ence fiction. Authors of such literature often take time to de-

we reread such a passage or sentence in isolation, we are

scribe the scenery of, for example, an exotic planet on which

often confronted simply with the words. We often have simi-

the action is situated, but they too are not able to go into ex-

lar experiences with photographs. We take photographs to

haustive detail about the properties of the virtual world they

memorise a special occasion, special people, or the flavour of

create. But the illusion works as long as the author offers the

a place. Photographs are meant to capture the moment. But

salient features that make the scene, and therefore the sense

looking at them some time later we are often left with simply

of life, come alive. The elements they offer suggest a vital

the buildings, the surroundings, and the people in them. The

pattern of what the virtual world is like and if the suggestion

moment is lost to us and the photograph becomes merely



anecdotal. In fact, a good poem, a piece of music, or another

The life expressed in art is virtual, which means that a work

work of art is more likely to trigger in us the sentiment ex-

of art will always be a work of fiction. This is intrinsically

perienced on that specific occasion than a photograph that

linked to its framed nature, which cuts it off from the realm

leaves us feeling less than what it shows. Works of art that

of actual everyday life. So art is a fictional symbolic repre-

are unrelated to the memorialised event can bring back the

sentation of the felt experience of life that is (an apparition)

feel of the moment because they are works of the imagina-

presented to our perception. Turning at last to Nussbaum,

tion that offer us symbols of feeling. They succeed because

with whom we still have something of a philosophical quar-

they, unlike the photograph, create a virtual experience that

rel to resolve, we find that Nussbaum has very little time

is discontinuous with the realm of everyday life and evokes

for Langer’s theory of art. In Upheavals of Thought (2001) she

the feeling apart from the anecdotal event. That, incidentally,

dismisses it because she feels it rests on what she consid-

is probably also the reason why art can soothe and calm us:

ers to be a simplistic theory of the emotions that fails to see

not because art has some cathartic effect (as the aristotelians

emotions as intentional. According to Nussbaum, Langer

and pragmatists would claim) but because it envelops us in

sees emotions as immediate and unreflected reactions to

another reality, a virtual world in which our actual life is mo-

outward impulses whereas Nussbaum has convincingly ar-

mentarily suspended. Art does not resolve our emotions, its

gued that there is an evaluative moment in all emotions and

illusions give us temporary relief from our emotions by invit-

that emotions are therefore never entirely “expressive” in an

ing us to direct our complete attention and sense of felt life

unmediated way. But even if we were to accept this criticism

towards the logical expression of feeling in the forms of the

that does not mean that we should reject Langer’s theory of

work. Harold Bloom reports that during the week following

art. In fact, we might want to try and adjust it and introduce

the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade

an intentional theory of the emotions, such as Nussbaum’s,

Center in New York he ‘taught scheduled classes on Wallace

into it. It then becomes clear that such an operation would

Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare’s early come-

not invalidate or even change Langer’s theory of art. Whether

dies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my

emotions are conceived of as intentional or not does not

students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma’

necessarily affect their relationship with the forms we create

(Bloom 2002: 3). Reading literature did not cathartically re-

to express them since Langer holds that art is never directly

solve or heal trauma but kept it at bay.

expressive of emotions. Whether an emotion is understood as intentional or not has nothing to do with the legitimacy

Against Form

of the claim that feeling is expressed in expressive forms. So

Let us summarise the Langerian insights into art we have

we could (if we were to pursue the issue) accept Nussbaum’s

gained. According to Langer, art is expressive form, a logical

criticism of Langer’s theory of the emotions and still stand by

symbol of the felt experience of life. But that is not enough.

Langer’s theory of art.



But Nussbaum is also critical of Langer because she is one of

But this is of course the issue that concerns Nussbaum most:

a series of ‘writers on art who are lovers of music and wish

following a tradition that she traces back to Aristotle, Nuss-

to give music a special place among the arts’ (Nussbaum

baum claims that the issues of citizenship and ethics that

2001: 261). But surely, if it is legitimate to take literature as a

she addresses in literature are themselves aesthetic issues

paradigmatic case of the arts, as Nussbaum does, it should

and that an aestheticist approach that focuses on formal

be equally legitimate to favour music in such a way. Besides,

qualities is too reductive. She claims that ‘one of the great-

Langer several times points out that the fact that music is

est contributions of both Plato and Aristotle to aesthetics

often her prime exhibit should not be taken to mean that

was their subtle account of the ways in which literary forms

it is somehow the “highest” form of art or the most pure or

themselves convey a content, a view of what is worth taking

the most representative. All the arts are equally pure in their

seriously, and what the world is like. What could someone

greatest accomplishments and there is no hierarchy of the

mean by saying that these questions are not aesthetic? Such

arts. I feel Nussbaum is so quick to dismiss Langer because

a claim can be seriously supported only by defending a pic-

Langer’s theory of living form is broader in scope than Nuss-

ture of the aesthetic that has had a relatively narrow and

baum’s ideas on literature and because many of Nussbaum’s

recent history in the Western tradition, namely the Kantian

observations can be more adequately explained through

and Post-Kantian formalist tradition, according to which the

Langer’s theory. To look at Nussbaum through Langer is to see

proper aesthetic attitude is one that abstracts of all practical

the limitations of Nussbaum’s approach, for it is clear that

interests’ (Nussbaum 1997: 102). But Nussbaum misrepre-

Nussbaum’s theory of literature does not travel well to the

sent the issue. Langer would never deny that literary form

other arts and that what she says about literature requires

conveys a content that we should take seriously. All content

more grounding in an analysis of literary form. Langer shows

present in a work of art is artistic by being part of the work.

that the “modes of interaction” Nussbaum isolates move us

But Nussbaum would have us believe that the presence of a

not for their discursive content but because they are integrat-

content that deserves to be taken seriously is often in itself

ed parts of the fabric of an illusion of life entirely felt. What

the full measure of a work’s artistic import. And this is sim-

Nussbaum claims literature tells or teaches us could just as

ply claiming too much for seriousness and demanding too

easily be stated, and in fact in a discursively much less am-

little from art. All art is serious, but not all serious things are

biguous way, in a statistic. Nussbaum’s theory does not show

art. Besides, to state that ‘literary forms themselves convey a

why literature needs to be literature because it fails to identify

content’ is a simplistic truism: how could one use words and

anything in literature that makes it specifically literary as

not convey some content? Even nonsense poetry relies on the

opposed to a social pamphlet or an elucidating statistic. She

fact that words, even words randomly put on paper, always

mentions style and form but never explains how they func-

suggest meanings and associations. Nussbaum might just as


well argue that the aesthetic import of Richard Strauss’ opera



Salomé lies in the fact that it narrates how the titular vixen

prejudice against non-discursive thought in her work. That

managed to trade her dance for a baptist’s head. And surely

may be a reason (but surely not the only reason) why she has

the supreme import of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion cannot lie in

tried to establish the reason of emotions in her work, notably

the fact that it reports how a man came to die on a cross.

in Upheavals of Thought. If emotions can be shown to have

The problem is now clear. Kant’s theory of aesthetic judge-

reason, they can be made to work in a discursive way and are

ment, which started the formalist-aestheticist tradition in

thus rescued from the shapeless muddle that we usually call

modern art theory, was primarily devised from the point of

“the emotional”. But even if we grant that this view of the

view of the visual arts and music, whereas the tradition to

emotions is correct, and Nussbaum’s writing on the issue is

which Nussbaum belongs has always been concerned more

persuasive enough, this does not mean that we need to reject

with literature, and especially the example of Greek tragedy.

Langer’s theory. But Nussbaum does so nevertheless. This

Langer shows that it is possible to expand the formalist ap-

rejection is probably due to the fact that Langer accepts that

proach to include all the arts, including literature, while re-

certain facts, feelings, or emotions do not allow of discursive

taining a keen awareness of each art’s individual characteris-

symbolisation. Langer accepts the limits of language and the

tics. But Langer also suggests that any approach that looks at

limits of discursive reason and subsequently suggests that

art discursively runs the risk of agreeing with the early (and

this need not lead us into unreason: it simply opens a new

only the early) Wittgenstein that it is best to keep silent about

perspective on a symbolism that is not discursive but still

matters about which it is not possible to speak. To take dis-

logical. Nussbaum would seem to stick with early Wittgen-

cursive meaning as the standard for evaluating all the arts is

stein: if something is not communicable in discursive lan-

to overlook the fact that some of the arts might be very well

guage (or translatable into it), it is senseless.

suited to express feelings and subtleties that discursive lan-

Nussbaum’s view of art, as represented in her very nar-

guage is often unable to communicate. A discursive approach

row focus on literature (and, one might add, only one very

to art makes two assumptions, namely ‘that language is the

specific kind of literature, namely the realistic novel of the

only means of articulating thought’ and that ‘everything

nineteenth century), is still utilitarian instead of aesthetic.

which is not speakable thought, is feeling’ (PNK 87) about

Basically, Nussbaum still sees art as what Kenneth Burke

which it is best to keep silent. But it is wrong to assume that

once called ‘equipment for living’: aesthetic objects that help

‘all articulate symbolism is discursive’ (PNK 88). Whenever

us cope with the many perplexities of life (Burke 1973: 61).

language encounters feelings or facts that do not allow of

Nussbaum’s work is a latter-day example of the therapeutic

discursive expression another kind of symbolism may be

fallacy that the ultimate legitimacy of art lies in its thera-

sought to express them. Such a symbolism would be a non-

peutic or social benefits. In a sometimes vicious criticism

discursive symbolism as can be found in the arts. Nuss-

of Nussbaum’s work Geoffrey Galt Harpham claims that for

baum’s stress on literature suggests that there is a utilitarian

Nussbaum ‘the specificity of literature as a discourse, an



object of professional study, is almost altogether erased and

which sets his work going, whether it comes suddenly like an

replaced by a conception that treats it bluntly as moral phi-

inspiration or only after much joyless and laboured fuddling,

losophy. [...] Her relation to literature, and to the world of the

is the envisagement of the “commanding form,” the funda-

mind in general, appears to have been based on the most

mental feeling to be explored and expressed’ (FF 389). This

“primitive” of all readerly responses, identification with fic-

‘power of conception’ is what Langer calls ‘genius’ (FF 408).

tional characters’ (Harpham 2002: 59). ‘Literature, she says, is

Genius is a much-maligned word and has become politically

useful because it cultivates emotions, and emotions are use-

incorrect since the triumph of the School of Resentment. It

ful because they foster a human community. The most useful

has also often been used in vague and pseudo-mystical ways.

literature is therefore realistic fiction’ (o.c. 68). Nussbaum’s

But the fact that many people have used a word badly should

social and moral goals may be laudable in themselves, but

not prevent us from using it correctly. There is nothing ob-

they cannot be imposed upon art without reducing art to

scure or arcane about genius: it is simply an artist’s ability

something which it is not. But this, in essence, is the error

to conceive of expressive form. Harold Bloom has called it

that lies at the heart of the therapeutic fallacy and that was

‘fierce originality’ (Bloom 2002: 11). In this, genius is differ-

also exposed by Langer when she pointed out that the ef-

ent from talent. ‘Although some degree of talent is necessary

fect of the pragmatic approach to art ‘is that aesthetic values

if genius is not to be still-born, great artists have not always

must be treated either as direct satisfactions, i.e. pleasure, or

had extraordinary technical ability; they have often struggled

as instrumental values, that is to say, means to fulfilment of

for expression, but the urgency of their ideas caused them to

biological needs. It is either a leisure interest, like sports and

develop every vestige of talent until it rose to their demands.

hobbies, or it is valuable for getting on with the world’s work

[...] But it is a mistake to think genius is complete from the

– strengthening morale, integrating social groups, or vent-

beginning. Talent is much more likely to be so, wherefore the

ing dangerous repressed feelings in a harmless emotional

infant prodigy is a well-known phenomenon. [...] Since ge-

catharsis. But in either case, artistic experience is not essen-

nius is not superlative talent, but the power to conceive invis-

tially different from ordinary physical, practical, and social

ible realities – sentience, vitality, emotion – in a new symbolic

experience’ (FF 35-36).

projection that reveals something of their nature for the first time, it does admit of degrees; and a small amount of genius

Genius Redeemed

is not a rare endowment. Whatever its scope, it is the mark of

A final question must be answered. We have said that art is

the true artist’ (FF 408-409).

expressive form. But what sets the creative dynamic in mo-

Harold Bloom explains that genius is derived from the Latin

tion? How does the artist engage upon a work of art? Cre-

and means ‘to be an attendant spirit for each person or place:

ation starts with an act of conception, namely when an artist

to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who,

conceives of a commanding form. ‘The act of conception

for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else.’ It



is ‘our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or

the attitude of resentment. To enable communication with-

imaginative power’ (Bloom 2002: 7). Note that there is a dou-

out mental expansion Nussbaum approaches literature as a

ble aspect to genius: it is an inborn power, but at the same

mode of discourse while the New Historicists look at litera-

time it is a power that may influence someone else. This in-

ture as an effect of social forces: it could happen to anyone

fluence is what Harold Bloom calls authority. ‘Genius asserts

and you could discourse on it with everyone. This is equality

authority over me,’ Bloom claims, ‘when I recognise powers

as method.

greater than my own’ (o.c. 3). Quoting Emerson, Bloom writes

Does all this mean that art can have no social or moral ben-

that words of genius are words that ‘sound to you as old as

efits? Not entirely. But it does mean that we must understand

yourself’ (ibid.): we recognise genius when someone says

these benefits properly. Oscar Wilde prefaced his novel The

something about our deepest nature which we felt we always

Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) with a series of aphorisms and

knew but were never able to verbalise. This, too, is put most

one of the most famous states that ‘there is no such thing as

eloquently by Emerson when he writes that ‘in every work of

a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly

genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts: they come

written. That is all’ (Wilde 1991: 129). This is much more than

back to us with a certain alienated majesty’ (quoted in Bloom

a programme for aestheticism: it states the simple truth

2002: 246). By denying greatness and originality the School of

that no art can be successful if it is not successful as form.

Resentment limits human growth and rejects the possibility

It is the forms that allow us to conceive of import, not the

that a mind may be larger than our own and may help ours to

content. Harold Bloom has stated he has grave doubts about

expand through exposure to the expressive forms it creates.

literature’s value as educator since most of the great master-

Harold Bloom was very accurate to speak of resentment in

pieces are not the kinds of books one can read as benevolent

relation to many contemporary critics for there is something

social tracts in the way that Nussbaum reads Dickens. Most

narrow-minded and ungenerous in the inability or unwilling-

great literature is filled with villains and characters with

ness to see greatness anywhere. But as Langer points out, ‘a

grave moral flaws who display all kinds of behaviour that we

critic who cannot be awe-struck is not equal to his material’

might not judge very commendable for everyday use. There

(FF 246): his mind is incapable of imagination, of conceiv-

is dubious morality in much great literature and many great

ing feelings and ideas that he does not yet know. The cruel

literary characters would deserve our moral condemnation

irony of this, of course, is that the social reform that people

if they were real. As Harold Bloom sarcastically remarks, ‘the

like Nussbaum would like to generate through art depends

new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for

entirely on our imaginative ability to put ourselves in the

the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very

minds of unknown others. But this requires an expansion of

best writers [...] is not going to make us better citizens. Art is

the mind, of the possibilities of felt experience. There is no

perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who

attitude more pernicious to this generous state of mind than

was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry



is sincere’ (Bloom 1994: 16), a truth to bear in mind when

level [because] the arts we live with – our picture books and

confronting politically correct critics who feel that mere ex-

stories and the music we hear – actually form our emotive

pressiveness makes for good art. They are wrong: real artists

experience. [...] This influence of art on life gives us an indica-

don’t cry, they conceive of expressive forms.

tion why a period of efflorescence in the arts is apt to lead

What, then, is literature, or art in general, for? As Harold

a cultural advance: it formulates a new way of feeling, and

Bloom points out, ‘the true use of Shakespeare or of Cer-

that is the beginning of a cultural age. It suggests another

vantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is

matter for reflection, too: that a wide neglect of artistic edu-

to augment one’s own growing inner self. [...] All that the

cation is a neglect in the education of feeling. Most people

Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own

are so imbued with the idea that feeling is a formless total

solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confronta-

organic excitement in human beings as in animals, that the

tion with one’s own mortality’ (o.c. 30). ‘What Johnson and

idea of educating feeling, developing its scope and quality,

Woolf after him called the Common Reader [...] does not read

seems odd to them, if not absurd. It is really, I think, at the

for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a

very heart of personal education’ (PA 71-72). In her Philosophi-

solitary existence’ (o.c. 518). The confrontation with great art

cal Sketches Langer adds that art is ‘the spearhead of human

cannot make us better people and it cannot cure social ills,

development, social and individual. The vulgarisation of art is

but it can expand our consciousness, deepen our insight, and

the surest symptom of ethnic decline’ (PS 83-84).

help us reach some kind of wisdom. ‘The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our con-

Inventing the Human

sciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effec-

As an example of the way art can help us shape our emotion-

tual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness

al lives Langer points to Irwin Edman’s suggestion that ‘our

been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If

emotions are largely Shakespeare’s poetry’ (PA 72). This idea

not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best

has recently been elaborated by Harold Bloom in a massive

and oldest in myself has not been activated’ (Bloom 2002: 12).

study of Shakespeare’s work. But the notion that Shakspeare

Langer points to something similar when she writes that art

provided the model for the personality and emotional make-

can help us form and expand our emotional lives. ‘As soon as

up of modern man can be traced at least to Early German Ro-

the natural forms of subjective experience are abstracted to

manticism and the work of Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and

the point of symbolic presentation, we can use those forms

Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), a context which Bloom does not

to imagine feeling and understand its nature. Self-knowledge,

mention but which is worth a detour here because it will take

insight into all phases of life and mind, springs from artistic

us right back to the problems we have been tackling in this

imagination. That is the cognitive value of the arts. But their

chapter. Friedrich Schlegel was probably the quintessential

influence on human life goes deeper than the intellectual

Early Romantic philosopher. His work includes a philosophy



of Romantic irony and fragmentation that often reads like a

Schlegel calls the tendency towards the Absolute within the

manifesto of postmodern sensibilities. Like the other Roman-

finite. This is a rather abstract way of saying that allegories

tics, Schlegel believed that the ultimate foundation of every-

are an attempt to somehow show or capture the Absolute in

thing, which was usually called the Absolute, was unattain-

a finite form. In an allegory we use an image to refer to some-

able. Therefore it became the object of a never-ending search.

thing else. It is an attempt to capture something elusive or

This search was the essence of philosophy, which Schlegel

abstract in an image. So an allegory uses an image of some-

defines as ‘Sehnsucht nach dem Unendlichen’ (Frank 1997: 521)

thing finite to focus on something beyond the finite: ‘Because

or a longing for the infinite. The destination of our longing is

it is ineffable, the highest can only be expressed allegori-

forever beyond reach, it remains a mystery. Because of his in-

cally’ (Frank 1989: 136; Frank 1997: 932). It should therefore

ability to gain access to his essential nature, man is split. Man

come as no surprise when Schlegel writes, in fragment 48 of

is a broken being that feels at once finite and infinite. This

his Ideen (1800), that ‘where philosophy ends, poetry must

double aspect is due to the unattainability of the Absolute:

begin’ (Frank 1997: 944). Poetry or allegory takes over from

we have an essence, a unity, a foundation, but we cannot

philosophy because philosophical reflection falls short of

attain it. Our most fundamental self remains forever alien to

its intended goal, which is to gain insight into the Absolute.

us. We cannot find out what we really are and can therefore

Reading fragment 48 one feels as if one were standing on

never be truly whole. Nevertheless, we feel ourselves whole.

the cross-roads between Langer and Wittgenstein: discursive

We feel or sense the Absolute. But every time we try to grasp

language and rational philosophical reflection fail to express

it, it eludes us. So we are on an infinite quest for insight into

the ineffable, but where Wittgenstein takes his silent leave

the Absolute. During this quest we feel at the same time fi-

and retreats into profound silence, Schlegel and Langer point

nite, namely a corporeal being that is limited and cut off from

towards a different symbolic order, a mode of expression that

the Absolute, and infinite, namely somehow linked to that

allows us to give form to what eludes rational discourse. But

elusive Absolute, attracted to it but never able to take hold of

allegory, which may surely be read here as shorthand for the

it. As a consequence, the subject experiences itself as a mere

arts, is not the only way Schlegel feels we can glimpse some-

fragment. It experiences a feeling of limitation that expresses

thing of the Absolute; there is also the joke, which is the op-

a most distressing truth: ‘dass wir nur ein Stück von uns selbst

posite of allegory. In the joke we actually find a short flash of

sind’ (o.c. 876). The other, missing part is the Absolute.

insight into the Absolute. Where allegory is directed upwards,

This longing for the Absolute which cannot be fulfilled, and

away from the finite and with the gaze fixed upon the beyond

cannot be fulfilled on principle, is expressed in a dialectic or to

of the Absolute, the joke tries to capture the Absolute firmly

and fro between the principles of allegory and the joke. The

within a piece of the finite. The joke is like a flash of insight

dialectical movement between these two principles is what

into the Absolute, like lightning striking into stone (lightning

Schlegel calls irony. Let us first look at allegory, which is what

or ‘Blitz’ was a preferred image of Schlegel’s to characterise



the joke). Jokes are funny because they are contradictory, they

to anything. So we can and will say anything and then sim-

go against logic and common sense. They turn the usual or-

ply deny it. What separates Romantic irony from postmod-

der upside down. In doing so, they illuminate our inner split.

ern irony is a sense of the tragic, of loss, of being bound to

Irony is the attitude man has when he confronts the Abso-

something we cannot attain. For postmodernists it no longer

lute. Fully aware of his lacking self, man mocks both the finite

seems to be tragic that we lack essence. It has simply become

and the infinite. This mockery is irony. Man mocks the finite

a joke. A shallow and hollow joke and a rather petite sort of

because it is always in conflict with itself, a constant chaos of

lightning. Postmodernity is simply irony made easy.

fragments and ever-changing individual positions that never

But now for Shakespeare. Romantic irony is not the everyday

come together in a coherent whole and always remain lack-

irony we use to distance ourselves from people or ideals.

ing in relation to the Absolute. But man also mocks the Abso-

Neither is it the famous Socratic irony that feigns ignorance

lute itself because it is unattainable. To be grasped by human

only to entrap an antagonist in debate. Romantic irony is a

reflection (or philosophy) the Absolute must limit itself (in

higher form of irony that is not even necessarily funny. To

allegory, in the lightning flash of the joke). But in doing so,

Tieck, it is a spirit that penetrates a complete work of litera-

the Absolute is simply not showing itself. Since the Absolute is

ture and both destroys and holds together everything in it.

infinite (and unattainable) no finite form can ever capture it.

Tieck himself has called this spirit an ‘Äthergeist, der [...] über

In showing itself, the Absolute retreats. So all fragments are

dem Ganzen schwebt’ (Frank 1989: 371). This means that irony

in the end revealed to be but failed images of the Absolute.

is not an element in the plot of a novel or play. It is not even

Irony is the tragic consciousness of one’s fragmentary condi-

an attitude of the characters. It might be those things, but it

tion. It is clear that what we have here is an early, and prob-

is essentially more. It is a spirit that pervades the entire work

ably the earliest, systematic description in the modern era of

and that must therefore be ingrained in its very fabric. And

what we have come to call “postmodern irony”. But there is a

that means that irony must be found in language itself. Both

difference, and an important one. Postmodern irony can be a

Schlegel and Novalis have spoken of a ‘Transzendentalpoesie’

very irritating attitude that easily lends itself to smugness. It

in this context, analogous to Kant’s concept of a ‘Transzen-

is often an excuse to not take any position at all. Postmodern

dentalphilosophie’. This is a philosophy that does not seek

irony can never be taken to account for anything because it

to describe what we know but how we know. This was also

never really stands up for anything. This smug irony repre-

the project of Kant’s first critique: to analyse how we gain

sents a shift away from Romantic irony. The Early Romantics

knowledge of the world and describe that epistemological

and Schlegel never denied the existence of the Absolute. They

mechanism. Similarly, transcendental poetry would be a po-

simply believed that it could never be attained. Postmodern

etry that reflects on itself as poetry while it is being written.

irony will usually do away with this belief in the Absolute.

It is a text that announces itself as text. ‘Transzendentalpoesie,’

Since nothing universally applies, we need not truly commit

Schlegel writes, ‘[stellt] in jeder ihrer Darstellungen sich selbst mit



dar’ and is ‘überall zugleich Poesie und Poesie der Poesie’ (o.c. 364).

losopher as Richard Rorty defined an ironist as a person who

It is at once poetry and poetry of poetry. This self-reflexivity

always maintains a distance towards his supposed essence

means that poetry loses its unequivocality and becomes all-

because such essences are never final).

encompassing in its meanings. No single word has one single

Tieck has described this concept of irony in his early essay

meaning anymore.

on Shakespeares Behandlung des Wunderbaren (1793), in which

So Romantic irony for Tieck is a stylistic irony. Robert Minder

he asks how Shakespeare gets us to suspend disbelief in the

has called it ‘la grâce tieckienne’ (o.c. 371). It is to be found in

face of the many wondrous and surreal things that happen

the way Tieck treats his language and can be gleaned only

in his plays. According to Tieck, Shakespeare succeeds by

indirectly, in the lightness of phrasing, in the inconsistent

making sure that the attention of the spectator can never

way characters are developed, and in the loose way in which

stay completely focused on one element. He constantly

drama is motivated. Negatively put, this means that Tieck’s

shifts from humour to terror, from horror to drama and back

irony can be seen in the fact that there is something light

to comedy, piling up stylistic and dramatic contrasts in such

and ephemeral in his phrasing, that his characters act in

a way that the mind is overwhelmed by the onslaught of

inconsistent and implausible ways, and that there is no firm

shifting moods and perspectives. There is such a clash of op-

causal relation between dramatic events, so that these events

posites, and it is sustained at such a level and for such a long

might at some times seem somewhat absurd or bizarre. The

time, that the mind simply starts to feel exhausted and is no

Romantics believed that this lack of consistency, this free-

longer able to find any reason or rationality in the proceed-

dom from solid character, was in fact the true freedom of

ings. This leaves the mind with only one option: to sit back

human nature. Why, after all, should man have substance?

and surrender wholly to the illusion of the play. To put it un-

What if the real freedom of man lies in the fact that he does

kindly, and profoundly unjustly, Shakespeare might be said

not have substance? This insight, which reads thoroughly

to beat his audience into submission by the sheer power of

postmodern to our eyes, was neatly expressed by Schelling

his mercurial imagination shooting all over the place. Inter-

in a 1820/21 lecture where he describes human subjectivity

estingly, Tieck believes that Shakespeare can do this because

as a ‘durch alles gehen und nichts sein, nämlich nicht so sein, dass

the human mind itself is very susceptible to this method.

es nicht auch anders sein könnte’ (o.c. 372). To be human is es-

The mind of man is nimble. It has no essence and is there-

sentially never to exist in such a way that existence could not

fore plastic. What we have here, is the un-essentialist Ro-

be different. In man, nothing is determined and all is possible

mantic view of the subject that we found in Schelling’s state-

because, as Novalis once wrote, ‘jeder Mensch ist ohne Maass

ment. For man, all is possible. So man is also receptive to a

veränderlich’ (Frank 1985: 23): there is no limit to our mutabil-

poetry (which stands pars pro toto for all the arts) in which

ity. Since the Early Romantics this lack of essence has been

everything is possible, even the wondrous and supernatural.

linked to the concept of irony (and as we saw, as recent a phi-

Romantic irony, in the sense of Tieck, but also in the sense



of Schlegel, expresses human nature through its agile to and

a ‘naturalistic unreality’ (o.c. 12). As Bloom points out, ‘the

fro between extremes of emotion and experience without

reading of character appears infinite in Shakespeare’ (Bloom

ever attaining an essence or an end. Of Tieck’s own literary

1994: 53) and ‘no other writer, before or since Shakespeare,

characters Manfred Frank has written that they are driven

has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating ut-

by an ‘inner Void’ (Frank 1989: 386). This void is the essence

terly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than

of Romantic subjectivity. If one writes for the stage, this sub-

one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly

jectivity is expressed through sheer inconsistency. This was

distinctive minor personages’ (Bloom 1998: xix). Shakespeare

also the view held by Novalis, who demanded ‘Mannigfaltig-

achieved this through what Bloom calls ‘a psychology of

keit in der Darstellung von Menschen,’ and especially ‘nur keine

mutability’ that ‘originates the depiction of self-change on

Puppen, keine sogenannten Charaktere – lebendige, bizarre, inkon-

the basis of self-overhearing [...]. We all of us go around now

sequente, bunte Welt. Je bunteres Leben, je besser’ (ibid.).

talking to ourselves endlessly, overhearing what we say, then

This mercurial man, leaping from either extreme of the emo-

pondering and acting upon what we have learned’ (Bloom

tional gamut to the other and responsive to sudden violent

1994: 48).

swings in mood and perception, was invented by William

Through this self-discovery through speech Shakespeare’s

Shakespeare. Modern man, ironic and sceptical, forever

characters develop to a point beyond our grasp. They create

torn by the question whether to act or not to act, is Hamlet,

themselves through the art of speech and become larger

Prince of Denmark. ‘Even at its darkest,’ Bloom writes, ‘Ham-

than ordinary life. ‘Hamlet baffles us by altering with nearly

let’s grief has something tentative in it. “Hesitant mourning”

every phrase he utters’ (Bloom 1998: 410). In a similar way,

is almost an oxymoron; still, Hamlet’s quintessence is never

all of Shakespeare’s characters ‘become free artists of them-

to be wholly committed to any stance or attitude, any mis-

selves, which means that they are free to write themselves,

sion, or indeed to anything at all. His language reveals this

to will changes in the self. Overhearing their own speeches

throughout, no other character in all of literature changes

and pondering those expressions, they change and go on to

his verbal decorum so rapidly. He has no center: [...] Hamlet

contemplate an otherness in the self, or the possibility of

is too intelligent to be at one with any role’ (Bloom 1998:

such otherness’ (Bloom 1994: 70). This is the expansiveness

406). Hamlet’s character is ‘a dance of contraries’ (o.c. 407).

of Shakespearean character that makes the Bard, in Bloom’s

To him, ‘the self is an abyss, the chaos of virtual nothing-

view, the author of modern man. ‘Shakespeare so opens

ness’ (o.c. 5). Bloom argues that Shakespeare, in inventing

his characters to multiple perspectives that they become

Hamlet, ‘invented the human as we continue to know it’ (o.c.

analytical instruments for judging you. If you are a moral-

xx). But the argument should not be limited to the gloomy

ist, Falstaff outrages you; if you are rancid, Rosalind exposes

prince of Elsinore. All of Shakespeare’s great characters are

you; if you are dogmatic, Hamlet evades you forever. And if

constructed from ‘seeming contradictions’ that give them

you are an explainer, the great Shakespearean villains will



cause you to despair. Iago, Edmund, and MacBeth are not

opaque philosophy of human reflection in his Fichte-Studien

motiveless; they overflow with motives, most of which they

(1795/96). Novalis (1772-1801) asks how knowledge of the elu-

invent or imagine for themselves. [...] The most bewildering

sive Absolute, and of our truest self, is possible. As starting

of Shakespearean achievements is to have suggested more

point he takes the notion of “reflection” and takes it literally

contexts for explaining us than we are capable of supplying

to mean a mirror image. If we look in a mirror, we see every-

for explaining his characters’ (o.c. 64). Shakespeare robs us

thing reversed: left becomes right and everything is turned.

of the possibility to think ourselves original in our concept

But we also think of our self-consciousness as reflection,

of our self. Shakespeare, as Camille Paglia has pointed out,

namely as self-reflection, a reflection upon our own thoughts

‘is the first to reflect upon the fluid nature of modern gender

and actions. So Novalis asks if a similar reversal of images

and identity’ (Paglia 1991: 197) and many of his comedies

also applies there. And it does. If we try to fathom the Ab-

evolve around mistaken identities with characters dressing

solute (or ourselves) through reflection, and this obviously

up as persons of the opposite sex. This fluidity, blurring the

means through the activity of philosophy, we constantly feel

lines of fixed personality, infects Shakespeare’s language,

that we are missing the Absolute. It eludes us and cannot

teeming with mercurial metaphors that ‘spill from line to

be attained. We have a feeling (‘Gefühl’) of what the Absolute

line, abundant, florid, illogical. [...] Shakespeare’s metaphors,

might be, but when we try to capture this feeling in (discur-

like his sexual personae, flicker through a rolling stream of

sive) thought, ‘der Geist des Gefühls ist da heraus’ (Frank 1997:

development and process. Nothing in Shakespeare stays the

817). As Nietzsche would later write in Die fröhliche Wissen-

same for long. [...] Shakespeare is an alchemist. In his treat-

schaft (1882), thoughts are mere shadows of our perceptions,

ment of sex and personality, Shakespeare is a shape-shifter

darker, emptier and simpler (‘Gedanken sind die Schatten un-

and master of transformations’ (o.c. 197-198).

serer Empfindungen, – immer dunkler, leerer, einfacher, als diese’;

The constant change in self, Hamlet’s ‘metamorphic nature’

Nietzsche 1999b: 502). But if rational reflection results in a re-

(Bloom 1998: 430), makes it ‘very difficult to generalize about

flection, namely a reversal of the true image, then reflection

Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its

must also have the ability to reflect this reflection, to turn

opposite’ (o.c. 409). This has something of the to and fro that

it again and put it right. This would be a double reflection

marks the infinite Romantic consciousness that Schelling

that might be called self-reflection, namely a reflection upon

described as anti-essentialist openness. This becomes espe-

and of the reflection that happens in reflection. The inverted

cially clear in light of Bloom’s remark that ‘Hamlet’s players

image in a mirror is reverted again when reflected in another

hold the mirror up to nature, but Shakespeare’s is a mirror

mirror. If we seem to lose track of the Absolute in reflection,

within a mirror, and both are mirrors with many voices’

because we only get an inverted and therefore unreal image

(o.c. 15). The imagery of mirrors, which Bloom borrows from

of it, then the reflection of reflection might put the authentic

Shakespeare, can serve as a direct link to Novalis’ rather

image of the Absolute right again. If reflection is a movement


away from the Absolute towards a false image, then double

Chapter Two

reflection can be experienced as a movement of the Absolute towards us, opening and presenting itself in its true form. But this play of reflections is too easy an answer to our predicament. It would border on sophistry to make things look so easy. Novalis is aware of this and therefore denies that double reflection can give us insight into the Absolute. What the double reflection does do, however, is make us acutely aware of the falseness of the image captured in reflection (in thought, in philosophy). Our perceived knowledge at-


tained through reflection is unmasked as false knowledge. So double reflection does not lead to insight in the Absolute, but to a knowing-of-not-knowing, a docta ignorantia! This is the spirit of Romanticism: there is something within us that 120

is beyond our comprehension and that can only be traced,


as Schlegel would say, through fragments. The Absolute is

One of the most important relationships in an artist’s life

larger than we could ever be. It is the same expansiveness

is that between himself and the artworld: the international

of the human soul that makes Shakespeare’s characters so

network of artists, curators, critics, and collectors who shape

much larger than us, but at the same time so close to us. It

the public face of the cultural realm. It is the curators, critics,

is in Shakespeare that we first find this infinity within that

and collectors who decide who’s hot and who’s not, which

the Romantics described as the source of our infinite Sehn-

works will be shown, and what will be sold. On a deeper level

sucht. It has been with us ever since and has shaped the way

the artworld probably also decides to a certain degree what

we think about ourselves. In fact, the postmodern condition

kind of art can be made at a given time. Obviously, this does

was invented by Shakespeare and is modelled on Hamlet. So

not mean the artworld decides which works of art will or

Shakespeare’s is a strong case indeed to show how art can

will not be made; it means that the artworld to a large extent

shape our emotional and spiritual lives.

decides what kind of art will be taken seriously at a given moment. Needless to say, the artworld is not a monolithic thing: there are many subcultures in the artworld. And the artworld is also often wrong in retrospect. The fact that the work of the Impressionists was jeered at and went unrecognised at first shows how wrong the artworld can be. It also shows

that a group of artists can form a subcultural artworld that

35) Danto is careful to speak of an interesting perceptual dif-

turns out to be more important than the dominant artworld.

ference because as he knows there were differences between

At least two lessons can be learned from this. First, an artist

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the real items one could buy in the

must always make the kind of art he believes in. No amount

supermarket. Not only were Warhol’s boxes handmade, they

of contemporary success or lack of it can say anything about

were also slightly smaller in size than the real Brillo boxes.

the value or importance of your work in the long run. Second,

So there are perceptual differences between art and real-

whether he likes it or not, every artist will have some kind

ity, but for Danto these differences are not “interesting” in a

of relationship with the artworld, even if it is simple flat-out

perceptual way, although they are of huge importance on a

rejection. So it is to the artworld and its dynamics that we

conceptual level. In fact, we will see that Danto so overvalues

now turn.

their conceptual importance that he becomes blind to such perceptual and material differences as are readily at hand in


Art Criticism After the End of Art

a given work of art.

In 1984 Arthur C. Danto made a bizarre claim about what he

Danto takes great pains to explain why Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

called the end of art. The end of art as Danto saw it has often

are a historical watershed. ‘Until the twentieth century it was

been misunderstood. Danto did not mean that no more art

tacitly believed that works of art were always identifiable as

would be made in the future. Nor was his claim about the

such. The philosophical problem now is to explain why they

end of art meant as a critical judgement on the art of the pe-

are works of art. With Warhol it becomes clear that there is

riod. Danto did not claim that contemporary art was so abys-

no special way a work of art must be’ (ibid.). For centuries

mally bad that he was witnessing something like the end of

this had been different. Danto believes that the ending nar-

art in the sense of the end of good art. Danto’s claim pointed

rative about art was begun around 1400, with the dawn of the

at an evolution within the narratives about art. Something

Renaissance. For centuries afterwards the narrative about

about the way we think and talk about art had so profoundly

art had to do with mimesis: art was judged on its ability to

changed that Danto believed it signalled the end of an era.

represent reality. Representational fidelity of some kind was

Danto was very specific about the date and place the era

the norm and art was felt to progress in its increasing abil-

ended: it was in Andy Warhol’s exhibition of his Brillo Boxes

ity to represent the world in ever more accurate ways. This

at the Stable Gallery in 1964. Warhol’s exhibition made it

is ‘the progressive model of art history’ (PDA 86) that starts,

clear that henceforth it was no longer possible to distinguish

for Danto, with Vasari. In the nineteenth century another

works of art from other objects. Warhol’s exhibition raised a

narrative developed out of this: the story of artistic Modern-

fundamental question: ‘what makes the difference between

ism. For Danto, the invention of the cinema, with its ability

a work of art and something not a work of art when there is

to represent movement with the highest representational

no interesting perceptual difference between them?’ (AEA

fidelity, was crucial in making artists abandon representa-



tion and raise ‘the question of what could be left for them to

itself is gained, it becomes pointless to pursue any further

do, now that the torch had, as it were, been taken up by other

the search for insight into art’s essence.

technologies’ (PDA 100). Most art histories put this shift at a

For Danto, the end of art ‘lies in the Age of Manifestos being

much earlier date, with the invention of photography, but the

over because the underlying premiss of manifesto-driven art

outcome was the same either way: the practice of painting

is philosophically indefensible. A manifesto singles out the

changed fundamentally. Now that photography and cinema

art it justifies as the true and only art, as if the movement it

had taken over the representational function, painting had

expresses had made the philosophical discovery of what art

to look for something else to do because it simply could not

essentially is. But the true philosophical discovery, I think, is

compete with the new media’s representational fidelity. With

that there really is no art more true than any other, and that

Modernism art became self-referential: ‘the whole main point

there is no one way art has to be: all art is equally and indif-

of art in our century was to pursue the question of its own

ferently art’ (AEA 34). With the end of art we have entered a

identity while rejecting all available answers as insufficiently

new era which Danto calls the Post-Historical era. From 1400

general’ (PDA 110). Modernism was what Danto calls the Age

until Modernism we lived in the historical era, at least in

of the Manifesto: innumerable manifestos were written about

artistic terms, because there was a belief in progress. In the

the one true art. Every artistic movement within Modernism

Renaissance and afterwards artists believed they were getting

believed it held the key to what art really was. And no move-

better and better at representing reality. In Modernism, with

ment agreed with any other about the nature of art’s essence.

its many manifestos, every avant-garde believed it was some-

By consequence, ‘the history of art simply seemed to be the

how progressing towards aesthetic truth, the ultimate pure

history of discontinuities’ (PDA 108), an endless parade of

and true essence of art. Such progress is no longer possible in

conflicting models without any progressive narrative thread.

the Post-Historical era. Therefore we have reached the end of

What Warhol showed, was that all these discontinuous ap-

history, which ‘means that there can be no historical direc-

proaches to art had somehow missed the point: what art was

tion art can take from this point on’ (AEA 36). If the historical

actually about was the attainment of consciousness of itself as

era was about drawing lines between what is and what is

art. This is an approach to art and history that Danto borrows

not (true or pure) art, no such lines can be drawn in the Post-

from Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), which sees

Historical era. ‘To say that history is over is to say that there

history as the gradual development of Spirit (which is every-

is no longer a pale of history for works of art to fall outside of.

thing) towards total self-knowledge. In his highly tendentious

Everything is possible. Anything can be art. And, because the

view of the history of art, which is made to fit the Hegelian

present situation is essentially unstructured, one can no lon-

model, Danto sees this process at work, culminating in War-

ger fit a master narrative to it’ (AEA 114). Since the 1960s we

hol, whose art is about nothing more than itself (at least in

have learned to accept everything as art.

Danto’s eyes). Once the insight that art is really just about

For the art critic the Post-Historical condition is somewhat



perplexing for he is confronted with a relativism in art that

of abstract art this presentation of his ideas is reductive and

seems to make any kind of standards-based criticism diffi-

highly tendentious. To understand this we must consider the

cult. Danto speaks of an ‘unforgiving sort of relativism’ with

role of feeling in Kant’s aesthetics. For Kant, all our informa-

which ‘the concept of quality became odious and chauvinist.

tion about the world comes from our senses. Sensory input

[...] In candour, [...] it would be altogether wonderful if one

is next processed in the mind, where it is ordered according

could turn to aesthetics as a discipline for guidance out of

to a set of twelve categories that shape the stream of sensory

the chaos’ (AEA 94). However, a theory of art criticism has be-

information into coherent wholes. Through this process,

come very difficult to obtain since the end of history means

which is an interplay between sensory experience and the

that ‘a philosophical definition of art must be compatible

analytical workings of the mind, an image of the world or

with every kind and order of art – with the pure art of Rein-

representation (Vorstellung) comes about. This representation

hardt, but also with illustrative and decorative, figurative and

is not in itself beautiful or ugly, it is simply the way the world

abstract, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, primi-

is presented to our senses (at this point, the reader might

tive and nonprimitive art, much as these may differ from one

want to recall Langer’s similar concept of intuition).

another. A philosophical definition has to capture everything

To determine whether a representation is beautiful or not we

and so can exclude nothing’ (AEA 36). According to Danto, the

must submit it to our sense of pleasure or displeasure: ‘Hier

Kantian paradigm is no longer a suitable candidate for such

wird die Vorstellung gänzlich auf das Subjekt, und zwar auf das

criticism. ‘The mistake of Kantian art criticism is that it seg-

Lebensgefühl desselben, unter dem Namen des Gefühls der Lust

regates form from content’ (AEA 98). But this is a wrong read-

oder Unlust, bezogen’ (KdU §1). In other words, the aesthetic

ing of Kant based on a common misunderstanding of the Kri-

judgement is not cognitive, it is about how we feel and expe-

tik der Urteilskraft (1790). Danto takes issue with Kant’s notion

rience a representation. The aesthetic judgement expresses

of disinterestedness, the idea that we should judge beauty ‘ohne

how the subject feels itself while perceiving a representation:

alles Interesse’ (KdU §2). He takes Kant to mean that disinter-

it is an experience ‘in der das Subjekt [...] sich selbst fühlt’ (ibid.).

estedness implies that we must void ourselves of feeling and

This means that the representation or Vorstellung is submit-

become neutered perceivers who simply register forms. Read

ted to the felt experience or ‘Lebensgefühl’ of the subject. If the

in this way, and the reading is quite common among Kant’s

representation kindles a pleasurable felt experience, it may

critics, Kant’s aesthetics becomes reductively formalist and is

be called beautiful, if not, it may be called ugly. But Kant goes

merely about registering relations between shapes and forms.

on to say that for such a judgement to be pure it must be dis-

In this way, Kant’s work is read as essentially a philosophy of

interested. This means that the aesthetic judgement must be

abstract art: the sheer play of forms in space or on a plane.

wholly aesthetic: it must consider only the way the representa-

Something that you can apply to Mondriaan, but to not much

tion we perceive engages our felt experience. We must not be

else. But while Kant’s philosophy does allow of a philosophy

motivated in our judgement by any kind of extra-aesthetic



considerations, be they practical, moral, financial, or of any

or some abstract graph). It is simply erroneous to think that

other kind. The aesthetic judgement must be exclusively

Kant reduces all our perceptions to a set of geometric shapes

concerned with the aesthetic, namely perception and how this

with colours painted in. The things we perceive are not sche-

perception makes us feel. Disinterestedness implies that no

matic forms but landscapes, birds and birdsong, paintings,

non-aesthetic issues may come into play. This does indeed

boys and girls, a sunset, and so on. A Kantian perceiver does

sound like a formalist aesthetic: it is concerned only with

not reduce these objects to abstract geometric schemata, he

the way perceived shapes and forms address our sense of

judges them as they are. All these things are in themselves

felt self. But two observations should be made to qualify this

shapes and forms. The whole of their perceptual properties

statement. First, Kant does not limit perceived shapes and

is what constitutes their form. When looking at a red rose

forms to geometrical shapes and forms (as common use of the

a Kantian does not see an irregular globe-like mass with

words shapes and forms might lead us to suppose); perceived

curved lines and frilly borders, all of it dyed in reddish hue; a

shapes and forms really encompass all the sensory data we en-

Kantian simply sees a rose. The rose is itself the form. Simi-

counter. Hence, a sound or a smell is also a perceived shape

larly, a Kantian perceiver does not see identical schemata of

or form. Second, Kant’s approach may sound distanced and

people walk around in the street as if they were a bunch of

formalist, but it is by no means void of feeling. On the con-

clones; he sees actual individual people. But to judge whether

trary, disinterestedness means that there should only be feel-

these people are beautiful he must make abstraction of his

ing, but feeling about the forms and shapes perceived. Beauty

own extra-aesthetic feelings about these people and merely

is about what pleases us in perception.

judge their perceptual properties as a unitary form. That is

But Danto’s claim was not about the segregation of form and

to say, for example, that a Kantian will have to make abstrac-

feeling in Kantian aesthetics but about the segregation of

tion of his personal dislike for his neighbour if he wants to

form and content. Danto might well grant the central role of

judge whether his neighbour is beautiful. The content of the

feeling in Kant’s aesthetics and still hold that any amount of

neighbour (“who he is” as an individual) is not segregated

feeling in judgement does not bestow content upon form. So

from his form, it is simply the perceiver’s personal interest

our argument does not really answer Danto’s objection at all,

that is segregated from his aesthetic judgement. Kant himself

although it does point us in the right direction. The problem

states the point very clearly: ‘If someone asks me whether

is that Danto presupposes that form itself cannot be content.

I find the palace that I see before me beautiful, I may well

And this is really the crucial issue, for a Kantian may very

say that I don’t like that sort of thing, which is made merely

well hold that it is. Kant’s third critique is not a philosophy

to be gaped at, or, [...] I might even vilify the vanity of the

of art but an extension of Kant’s theory of perception. What

great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous

we perceive is never some abstract shape (except, of course,

things [...]. All of this might be conceded to me and approved;

if the object under consideration is itself an abstract painting

but that is not what is at issue here. One only wants to know



whether the mere representation of the object is accompa-

sensory experience with the innate categories of the mind.

nied with satisfaction in me’ (KdU §2; Guyer 2005: 557).

The trouble with this view, however, is the question of how

Obviously, Kant’s theory of beauty has many complexities

you bring the two together: where do senses and mind meet?

and raises many further difficulties that cannot be addressed

The third critique tried to bridge the gap in “reflecting judge-

here. What is important for us, however, is to make clear that

ment,” which comes about when the forms of perception and

a Kantian aesthetic does not preclude feeling or content,

the categories of the mind are allowed free play among each

which renders calling it “formalist” rather tricky and mislead-

other in the construction of perception. The power of judge-

ing. Kantian philosophy suggests that the feeling experienced

ment is the point where mind and body meet. To be sure, this

in aesthetic judgement is profoundly linked to the formal

is a highly simplified presentation of Kant’s argument. And it

properties of the object under consideration. These formal

remains open to question whether Kant’s bridging of the gap

properties are not some kind of abstraction but a particular

is at all successful and could pass the test of philosophical

content. But all particular content has a form or shape and

scrutiny. But that need not concern us here: what matters for

it is this form that must be judged. To see Kantian aesthet-

us is the mere fact that Kant had the intent to bridge the gap

ics as a disembodied formalist theory is therefore to miss its

between body and mind in the third critique, which puts the

point entirely, as art historian Amelia Jones does (but many

lie to any discussion of Kantian aesthetics that tries to sell it

others with her) when she claims that Kantian aesthetics and

off as an abstract and somehow “disembodied” enterprise.

the art criticism that derives from it ‘are predicated upon the suppression of the particular, embodied, desiring subject; the

Skirting Langer

artist and the critic must remain transcendent rather than

If anything, it is the Hegelian approach to art as we find it in

immanent (embodied)’ (Jones 2000: 20). It is true that Kant

Danto that appears to be guilty of a lack of embodiment. To

would consider a desiring subject a subject with interest, for

see this we should return to Danto’s discussion of Warhol’s

to desire something is the very definition of interest (KdU

Brillo Boxes, which he sees as very pure examples of what he

§2). But it is manifestly untrue that a Kantian perceiver must

calls “indiscernibles”: real objects and art objects that are so

be disembodied and transcendent. For Kant, there is beauty

similar that they cannot be told apart on the basis of visual

only in the particular because beauty is always grounded in

perception alone. But as we saw, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are very

a judgement on subjective perception. The Kantian perceiver

easily told apart from the real thing: they are painted on

must be wholly embodied for it would be quite impossible

wood, handcrafted, and slightly smaller in size than the ac-

for him to judge anything if he had to go about without his

tual boxes. Nobody has ever approached a Warhol Brillo Box as

physical senses. In actual fact, Kant’s aesthetics were part

if it were an actual Brillo box. Danto seems to ignore this fact

of his attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body. As

and claims that with Warhol’s work ‘it becomes clear that

we saw, we construct our image of the world by combining

there is no special way a work of art must be – it can look like



a Brillo box, or it can look like a soup can’ (AEA 35). But this

the difference between the real and the counterfeit Napoleon.

is not really an issue about what art can be, it is about what

Danto seems to claim that the fact that an object is an indi-

can become a topic or motif in art. Warhol has never made a

vidually crafted and fictional work of art is not sufficient to

work of art that looks like a soup can. Warhol has painted im-

explain that it is different from the real thing it represents.

ages of soup cans, which is rather a different matter. Nobody

Danto’s inability to deal with the material facts of art is pain-

as yet has tried to open a Warhol painting of a Campbell’s

fully clear in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981),

soup can to try and eat its contents for the very simple rea-

which relies almost entirely upon fictional examples of pos-

son that Warhol’s work is a painting and not a faux soup can

sible or hypothetical works of art. At one point Danto even

with misleading three-dimensional properties. A painting of

discusses a work that Picasso could have made (but obviously

a soup can is not a work of art that resembles a soup can: it

didn’t) at elaborate length. There is in fact very little actual

is an image that represents a soup can. That Danto overlooks

art under discussion in Danto’s book, which is devoted al-

the difference between an actual object and its representa-

most entirely to showing that art is now about philosophy.

tion in a two-dimensional image is rather alarming in a phi-

Danto’s main claim is that everyday or commonplace objects

losopher and critic. It clearly shows that his own theory of art

are turned into art (transfigured, so to speak) because of the

is so focused on the conceptual level, namely the idea that

meanings the artist or the critic attaches to them. But the

art has now become totally self-reflexive and hence a kind

transfigured object remains outwardly indiscernible from its

of philosophy about art, that he is totally blind to the material

non-artistic counterpart. As such, Danto’s book is an apol-

properties of the art under discussion. ‘It is true,’ he admits of

ogy for conceptual art. At one point in the discussion Danto

the Brillo Boxes, ‘that Warhol’s boxes were made of plywood,

brings up Nelson Goodman’s reasonable suggestion that total

stencilled by hand by Warhol and his assistants, and the

indiscernability between similar objects is highly unlikely

commercial cartons were made of printed cardboard on huge

and that close scrutiny of pairs of similar objects is almost

industrial presses. But that, surely, could not explain the dif-

logically determined to show up some difference between

ference between art and reality’ (Danto 2005: xi). But if that

them, especially if we are dealing with sets of objects one of

cannot explain the difference, I should like to know what can.

which is a work of art and one of which is not. Danto has a

To claim that the difference between the real thing and an

hard time refuting Goodman and reverts to the claim that ‘it

imitation cannot explain the difference between art and real-

is striking as a matter of concealed bias on Goodman’s part

ity is special pleading with a vengeance. In fact, I would say it

that he should spontaneously have assumed that all aesthetic

is simply stupid for by the same token one might claim that

differences are perceptual differences’ (CT 43). I fail to see the

the fact that the historical Napoleon Bonaparte was a physi-

bias in this: it is plain common sense. The only way to make

cal human being and David’s painting of Napoleon Bonaparte

Danto’s claim that aesthetic differences could be non-per-

is an image of the man in paint does not sufficiently explain

ceptual legitimate would be to assume that ideas or concepts



attached to objects are part of their aesthetic properties. As

The truth of the matter is that, contrary to Danto’s claims,

we will see, this is exactly what Danto assumes, but it ren-

most contemporary art is very clearly discernible as art.

ders the whole issue rather sterile. Since ideas and concepts

Most contemporary artists do not even try to make their

are not visible in themselves it is straining the meaning of

work look indistinguishably like an object in the real world.

“aesthetic” to categorise them in that rubric: to be percep-

It is certainly true that any object or any image can now be

tible (aesthetic in the etymological sense of “present to the

appropriated into art and that artists can now freely move

senses”) ideas and concepts must be expressed in material

between media and kinds of art, making a painting today, a

containers, not simply attached to them as some invisible

sculpture tomorrow, and maybe write a book or direct a film

Platonic Idea. But Danto is systematic in his madness for

next year. It is true that most of what we now happily con-

in the same paragraph he claims that ‘future investigation

cede is art could only become art in our Post-Historical age

may reveal differences between two objects which are not

of pluralism. But that does not mean that all those works are

perceptual differences’ (ibid.) but, we may now assume, dif-

not distinguishable from ordinary objects. Or, to paraphrase

ferences in meaning. The problem with this (apart from the

the title of Danto’s own book, the commonplace has not

fact that an appeal to hypothetical results of possible future

simply or even primarily been transformed in a conceptual

research is a council of despair even in the most speculative

way: when artists work with commonplace objects they usu-

of metaphysics) is of course that the presence of some idea

ally change a lot about their material conditions and hence

or concept in or around an object can be neither proved nor

their form, their presentation, their context, their stylistic

disproved, which makes the entire argument facile or void or,

features. Most art that deals with the commonplace does not

at least, uninteresting. Hence, Danto’s entire claim is (in Witt-

transform the commonplace rather than depict it or use it as a

genstein’s sense) senseless.

material. A Wolfgang Tillmans photograph of the Concorde is

But let us return to the indiscernibles. Danto’s claim that it

not the Concorde itself, just as David’s portrait of Napoleon

is now impossible to tell art objects apart from “real” objects

Bonaparte is not the actual chieftain of the French. And a

because anything can be art has only ever been true of a very

Sarah Lucas sculpture made of cigarettes is itself hardly an

limited class of conceptual art objects. It certainly does not

object for smoking (I was going to add that so far nobody has

hold of Duchamp’s urinal, which is often the prime exhibit of

tried to shove Paul McCarthy’s giant butt-plugs up his be-

Hegelian conceptual theories, but of which Elizabeth Frank

hind as if they were real all-kinds-of-anal-pleasure-inducing

has rightly pointed out that it ‘was turned upside down

butt-plugs, but I refrain). What these artists do, and what in

when first shown in New York in 1917; it had a signature,

fact artists have done through most of art history, is to take

“R. Mutt” and, however much it scandalised people, nobody

objects or people that are present in the real world and use

peed in it, at least not to my knowledge; had it been placed

them as a motif, a topic, a model, a tool, an ingredient, a

in a real men’s room, nobody would have’ (Frank 1996: 279).

material. They represent or alter the commonplace object.



Hence, the object is no longer a commonplace object, just

seems problematic to me, especially since her work offers so

like the paint applied to a canvas by a painter is no longer

many valid answers to the questions Danto poses. Further-

the commonplace object it was while it was still inside the

more, in a criticism of Langer in Art After the End of Art (1997),

tube. The artist does not transform the commonplace paint

Danto claims that feeling and form (the title of Langer’s great

itself into art but uses it as a material for art. Danto does not

work) ‘have tended overall to rule one another out’ (AEA

get this. For example, he refers to 1960s ‘avant-garde dance,

112). But to say that feeling and form rule each other out one

where dance movements, outwardly indistinguishable from

must hold a naive traditional view of feelings as irrational

simple bodily movements, began to be performed. What was

and shapeless and therefore opposed to the rational clarity

the difference between walking and performing a dance

of forms. But as Langer points out, feelings and emotions

movement that consisted in walking?’ (Danto 2005: xi-xii)

only seem irrational ‘because language does not help to make

The difference is very simply that in the dance the walking

them conceivable, and most people cannot conceive any-

movement has become a motif that is used within the pri-

thing without the logical scaffolding of words’ (PS 88). To be

mary illusion of the dance.

more precise, it is discursive language that fails to adequately

This takes us right into the work of Susanne K. Langer, who

express emotions because it ‘does not reflect the material

claims that anything, even the most commonplace object or

form of feeling’ (PS 89). This is why man develops art, ritual,

movement, can become a motif in art if it is integrated in an

religion, and metaphor: their symbolism offers logical forms

expressive form. For Langer the formal properties of a work

that do express the forms of feeling. Danto’s claim that feel-

of art are related to the feeling or content they are meant to

ing and form are at odds becomes even more bizarre in light

convey. In this sense her work is a fine example of how one

of passages in his own work that have a decidedly Langerian

can develop an aesthetic theory that is Kantian in inspiration

ring. For instance, Danto uses (late) Wittgenstein’s notion

(but developed via Ernst Cassirer and John Dewey, amongst

of “forms of life” to illustrate that every style of painting is

others) without segregating form and content or form and

embedded in a form of life and cannot simply be transposed

feeling. Langer manages to evade the segregation through her

to another period. Such a period ‘is not simply an interval of

keen insight into symbolism and language. But Danto rarely

time, but rather such an interval in which the forms of life

mentions Langer. This is odd, for when he does mention

lived by men and women have a complex philosophical iden-

her, he refers to her as ‘my teacher, and my friend’ (AB 2; cfr.

tity, as something lived and known about in the way we know

AEA 112). I do not know the details of Danto’s relationship to

about things by living them’ (AEA 201). When Danto claims

Langer, whether he studied under her or simply sat in on her

that the way art is made, including its style, is closely related

lectures. But I do assume that you may be taken to be conver-

to a form of life as it is experienced by the people living it, he

sant with a philosopher’s ideas if you label that philosopher

is really suggesting that there is link between subjective feel-

your teacher and friend. So Langer’s absence in Danto’s work

ing (of which daily experience is a part) and the forms that



may be used to express it.

any object, any gesture, any motif, no matter how common-

There are probably several reasons why Danto skirts Langer.

place. Judging by the brief Foreword Danto fabricated for the

It is not uncommon for thinkers to develop a blind spot for

abridged edition of Langer’s three-volume Mind, published in

other thinkers by whom they have been profoundly influ-

1988, it certainly seems as if Langer’s hovering intellectual

enced or whose ideas they perceive as a philosophical threat

presence was in need of exorcism for Danto calls Mind ‘a

to their own theories because they get too close for comfort.

work inadequate in its original execution’ and ‘an unwieldy

So Langer beat Danto to the idea of the Post-Historical era

book’ in which ‘the supporting material obscures the philo-

by at least a decade (Danto first formulated his views in a

sophical architecture’ (Danto 1988: vi). Coming from the au-

paper published in 1964). But there may be a strategic reason

thor of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, which is one of

behind Danto’s tiptoeing around Langer. Danto has the clear

recent philosophy’s most plodding books, comments about

intention of promoting himself as a key historical figure. In

obscured philosophical architecture are somewhat ironic.

the Introduction to Unnatural Wonders (2005) Danto writes

More importantly, Danto completely disregards the custom

about his own experience after publishing his essay about

that a Foreword, especially the Foreword to a book by a friend

the end of art in 1984. ‘Though it took awhile for the fact to

who had died only a brief few years before and was therefore

dawn on me, I was in a sense the first posthistorical critic of

no longer around to defend herself, is supposed to be lauda-

art. There were of course plenty of art critics in the period we

tory. That Danto uses such a Foreword to disparage Langer’s

had now entered. What was special about me was that I was

work is in very poor taste to say the least. But whatever Dan-

the only one whose writing was inflected by the belief that

to’s (obviously conflicted) relation to Langer may be, I believe

we were not just in a new era of art, but in a new kind of era’

that Langer’s theory of art is exactly what Danto needs to

(Danto 2005b: 3). Danto’s inflated sense of his own impor-

get out of the chaos the art critic in the Post-Historical era

tance is illustrated when he next claims that he only has one

finds himself in. Langer’s view of art as expressive form is

real forerunner: Hegel. Danto does put himself in rather lofty

sufficiently general to take in all the arts. She discusses all

company, although a more sober-minded critic might argue

the major forms of art that were about when she was writ-

that what made Danto special was the way he developed a

ing. She obviously does not address performance or video art

sense of his own towering historical importance from getting

or other more recent kinds of art that have developed in the

his Kant all backwards.

pluralist era. But as we will see in the next chapter, her ideas

The one thing that could deflate Danto’s self-promotion is

can very easily be expanded to include newer forms of art in

to find another thinker who had already proposed similar

a meaningful way. But at the same time Langer’s ideas are

claims in the recent past. To be sure, Langer never suggests

sufficiently specific to make criticism possible. This is in fact

we have entered a new era, but she did suggest already in

the great strength of her concept of “primary illusion,” which

Feeling and Form that anything could be integrated in art:

defines in a clear but general way what is the basic structure


of every kind of art. Langer tells us what art is, what it does,

forever seeking out anything that is new and has a radical

and how it does that in its several forms. The implications of

ring to it, so we may be sure that they have done the Danto

her theory therefore make it ideally suited to deal with art in

thing). Or maybe Danto was right when he said that art had

the Post-Historical era.

ended in 1964 but his theory no longer applies to more recent art because history has moved on after all. That would mean


A Short History of the Avant-Garde

that art after art has not necessarily been made in the mode

Let us return to Danto’s claim that the Post-Historical era

of the end of history. Possibly, something entirely different

means the end of the Age of Manifestos. This claim is clearly

may be going on. But whatever it is, we shall make it the

related to the claim that we have witnessed, in recent times,

business of the present section to try and see more clearly

the end of the avant-garde. The avant-garde, after all, was a

into the matter of what has happened to the avant-garde in

Modernist idea that expressed many artists’ sense that they

the current pluralistic age.

were in the vanguard of history. But if there are no more

The first thing to consider is that several noted authors of-

master narratives there can be no more avant-gardes. In

fer readings of the history of the avant-garde that seem to

reality, however, the rhetoric of avant-garde has never left

discredit several aspects of Danto’s presentation. In his clas-

the artworld. In fact, with the advent of postmodern Theory

sic theory of the avant-garde Peter Bürger distinguishes the

imported from France since the late 1960s, great progress into

historical avant-garde from the neo-avant-garde (Bürger 1974:

ever new areas of profound new theoretical insight has been

44-45). The historical avant-garde emerged at the end of the

announced with numbing regularity. It sometimes sounds

nineteenth century and is exemplified by Dadaism and Surre-

as if every new book by every famous critic were rewriting

alism. Its core project was to dissolve art into life. The histori-

the whole of history from the point of view of new theoreti-

cal avant-garde was a reaction to bourgeois culture. Bourgeois

cal insights that are invariably shaking the foundations of

culture saw a gradual division of society into several autono-

Western culture. Despite the widespread belief in historical

mous areas, similar to the division of labour in the industrial

relativism and the end of the master narratives talk of prog-

area. This means that art also gradually developed into an

ress towards new insights has continually poured forth from

autonomous practice, with the artist emerging as a “special-

people, mostly theorists, who seem to firmly believe they are

ist” in the same way that any other craftsman or labourer

at the vanguard of the very history presumed dead. This is

could be a specialist in some specific activity (o.c. 42). This

odd, to say the least, and several explanations come to mind.

emancipation of art culminated in Aestheticism, which is the

Maybe Danto was simply wrong in talking of the end of art

final consolidation of art as a separate institution within soci-

and the dawn of the Post-Historical era. Maybe he was right

ety. As art grew more independent from other areas of society

but the trendies of Theory are simply still having to catch up

it also lost its influence in society and ceased to play a defin-

with the fact (but this seems unlikely since the trendies are

ing social role. In earlier times, especially in the Middle Ages



and the Renaissance, art had been closely linked to the needs

avant-garde art had been more or less limited in its expres-

and demands of the church or the aristocratic classes. In the

sive possibilities by an epochal style that determined more

Renaissance the evolution towards emancipation started

or less what ways of making art were available to artists. In

with the emergence of highly idiosyncratic personal styles.

contrast, the avant-garde never developed a canonical style.

In the Middle Ages most artistic production had been anony-

Not only were there many strands within the avant-garde,

mous, in the Renaissance the individual genius took centre

but even within every strand there was no canon for creation.

stage. With the triumph of bourgeois culture over aristocratic

No two Dadaist works look alike and neither do two Surreal-

culture art’s function within society changed dramatically:

ist works. With the avant-garde everything becomes possible:

the artist now became a merchant trying to sell his goods on

every style and every means of expression suddenly comes at

the art market. Individual style and excellence became all-

the artist’s disposal (o.c. 23-24). This means that Bürger situ-

important whereas traditional social or moral messages de-

ates the switch to what Danto would call the Post-Historical

creased in importance because the average collector was now

era, where everything is possible, in the era of the historical

a bourgeois individual who did not seek political statements

avant-garde. Its prime exhibit is, obviously, Duchamp’s urinal.

but art that would enhance his own conception of himself as

In this work Duchamp questions several core tenets of art in

a citizen and bourgeois. In the bourgeois period the classical

the bourgeois period, first and foremost the institution of art

tension in art between form and message was eliminated in

itself. By placing a urinal in a museum Duchamp questions

a decisive shift towards the dominance of form (or a signa-

the position of the artist as the unique creator of the work.

ture style). It is this shift that would help make Modernism

He also questions the institutions that were linked to the

possible, the series of artistic movements that question the

bourgeois conception of art: the museum and the exhibition.

nature of artistic representation itself.

The prime tactic of the historical avant-garde was provoca-

Aestheticism is the end point of the evolution of bourgeois

tion, a kind of shock tactics that was aimed at taunting the

art. It clearly shows the dual nature of art in bourgeois soci-

public and making it reflect on art and life. A favoured prin-

ety. On the one hand Aestheticism shows the full autonomy

ciple in this project was estrangement (‘Verfremdung’; o.c. 24).

of art: it is only about itself, it is sheer form. But by implica-

However, the avant-garde never really exploded the au-

tion it also shows the full emancipation of art from society in

tonomy of art. It simply subverted its categories. The reason

the sense that such an Aestheticist art has lost all influence

for this is quite simply that any art that merges entirely with

in society. It is socially impotent and at worst (from the point

life would cease to be art at all. The success of Duchamp’s

of view of social influence) merely decorative. For Bürger the

provocation is entirely dependent upon the existence of the

historical avant-garde was a reaction against the impotent

category of the artist as the autonomous maker of the work

autonomy of art. It rejected bourgeois art in a radical way and

of art. Without such a framing theory the urinal becomes

sought to re-integrate art into life. Until the emergence of the

simply a urinal and loses all its subversive power. This is


what makes the neo-avant-garde an impossibility. For Bürger

if it wants to have any kind of critical or subversive effect in

the neo-avant-garde comprises the conceptual, minimalist,

society, i.e. if art wants to be some kind of protest, it needs to

and performance movements emerging since the late 1950s.

be autonomous, which means that art must be separate from

The problem with art such as Duchamp’s urinal lies in its

the practice of everyday life (o.c. 73). This certainly raises

nature as a unique event. One cannot repeat it. ‘Duchamp’s

many questions about community art or any kind of activity

ready-mades are not works of art,’ Bürger writes, ‘but mani-

aimed at the strengthening of the social fabric that is pre-

festations’ (o.c. 71). Contrary to Danto, Bürger claims that

sented as art. Despite the many claims of conceptual art and

the power of the urinal has nothing to do with the classical

other kinds of “critical” art since the 1960s, Bürger’s analysis

tension between form and content (or meaning), but with

suggests that all this recent art is not really critical at all be-

the tension between a factory-made serial object on the one

cause it simply repeats gestures that were critical only when

hand and the fact that the artist has signed it and thus in-

they first emerged in the historical avant-garde.

scribes it into the bourgeois narrative of the artist as the au-


tonomous maker of art. Once the idea that the individual is

Kondylian Combinations

necessarily the creator of the work has been dispensed with

Bürger’s history of the avant-garde is corroborated in an

within the artworld such gestures lose all force. Art after Duch-

interesting way in Panajotis Kondylis’ history of the decay

amp has been very willing to accept ready-mades (or indis-

of the bourgeois way of life and the emergence of mass de-

cernibles) as “real” works of art. This means that the idea of

mocracy. Kondylis argues that every culture looks at reality

the artist as individual creator has been abandoned and that

from a specific perspective or worldview. Such a worldview

the category of “the work of art,” which the historical avant-

is created to cope with the world: it is a means of survival in

garde sought to dismantle, has been restored (o.c. 78). So all

a hostile environment. By imposing a certain view upon the

such provocation after Duchamp simply falls flat because the

world, a culture establishes an identity that allows it to con-

avant-garde has been institutionalised: in the 1960s nobody

trol the world. Through this control a culture and its inhabit-

was shocked when commonplace objects were presented

ants are able to keep themselves alive (Kondylis 1984: 14).

as art. We had seen it before and the thrill was gone. This,

This means that every worldview is designed in relation to

according to Bürger, was the problem facing the neo-avant-

whatever may threaten a culture’s survival. These threats are

garde of the 1950s and 1960s. The ideas of the historical

the culture’s enemies. In primitive cultures the enemy may

avant-garde have become common currency in the artworld

be wild animals or poisonous plants, but in our more devel-

of the late twentieth century, ‘so the gestures of protest of the

oped societies the worldview is usually designed to identify

neo-avant-garde become prey to inauthenticity. Their claim

and do battle with ideological enemies, namely groups of

to protest can no longer be sustained because it cannot be

people or cultures that live by another and usually conflicting

made good on’ (ibid.). This leads Bürger to conclude that art,

worldview. This means that for Kondylis ‘es gibt keinen anderen


methodischen Zugang zur Erfassung des Charakters einer Epoche oder einer Gesellschaftsformation als ihre Abgrenzung gegen eine frühere oder eine andere’ (Kondylis 1991: 287). To understand a culture or epoch one must understand against what or whom it was constructed. For instance, the worldview of the Enlightenment was developed as a strategic answer to the christian worldview of the Middle Ages. The christian worldview saw everything from the perspective of religion and salvation, with the main focus of attention lying in the afterworld. It was a world of disembodiment and spirituality. The Enlightenment was a strategic answer to the challenge of gaining victory over this worldview by trying to rethink the relationship between mind and body (Kondylis 2002: 19). A specific way in which this strategic answer took form can be seen in modern aesthetics, notably in the works of Schil-


ler and Kant. As we saw before, Kant’s aesthetic theory was an attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind. This means that he was trying to undo the bifurcation of body and mind that was at the heart of Christianity, where the body had to be mortified and only the immortal soul would be saved. A similar tactic is at work in Schiller’s work, where the arts, and notably the theatre, are engaged in a didactic process: the theatre can be used as a stage for attractively packaged moral messages. However, Schiller argued for the autonomy of art: whatever moral message a work of art may present, it could only be successfully conveyed if the work of art was not subservient to morality. There had to be harmony of form and content and neither of the two should dominate the other. Kondylis has called the mechanism at work in modern aesthetics ‘the rehabilitation of the sensual’ (‘die Panajotis Kondylis

Rehabilitation der Sinnlichkeit’; ibid.): both Kant’s and Schiller’s



works (but the works of many others too, and not merely in

according to Kondylis, is therefore time: there is a trend to-

aesthetics) can be seen as attempts to re-enfranchise the

wards harmony that develops through time. Modernity is the

physical realm in view of the traditional hostility towards it.

culture of perfectibility. History is a process of progress. In

One way of doing this was to stress the moral potential of art:

the arts bourgeois culture is expressed in Classicism, where

aesthetic enjoyment (which is sinful in a christian perspec-

there is a symmetrical relation between the whole and its

tive) could serve higher moral ends. But both Kant and Schil-

parts and a perfect union of form and content, as in Schiller’s

ler stress the autonomy of art in this process, which chimes

proposals for the theatre. In the modern view, art is included

with Bürger’s claim that bourgeois culture evolved towards

in the history of organic progress for it is usually seen as the

an emancipation of the aesthetic into an autonomous realm.

highest triumph of nature: it is in art that mankind achieves

In Kant this trend towards autonomy of the aesthetic is most

the highest expression of himself. It is no coincidence that

clear in the element of disinterestedness which we have al-

this idea was also at the heart of Schiller’s aesthetics, where

ready discussed.

it is art that allows man to bind together his sensual and his

Kondylis has sketched bourgeois culture as ‘synthetic-

moral self (Kant’s body and mind) in a greater harmony that

harmonising’ (‘synthetisch-harmonisierend’; Kondylis 1991:

is his highest human calling.

15): it is a worldview that is well-ordered and scientific and

Bourgeois culture in its pure form only existed for a very

aims at a harmonic synthesis of opposites. It tries to bring

brief period of time. It soon started to erode from within.

everything together in what can be called le juste milieu. This

This process becomes especially visible in the second half of

term is borrowed from the arts, but we find it equally at work

the nineteenth century, when the emancipation of the sev-

in the other aspects of culture. For example, deism seeks to

eral spheres of action becomes clearly visible. The decline of

harmonise the existence of a superior being with the find-

bourgeois culture is in many ways a parallel process to the

ings of modern science, thus saving both traditional moral-

division of labour, as Bürger also claimed. The nineteenth

ity and modern science from mutual embarrassment (and

century saw the gradual emancipation of the labourer in the

philosophical writers from possible prosecution by church or

emergence of social movements. This started a process of at-

state). In the case of Kant, the harmonising middle ground

omisation of society: as the twentieth century progresses, the

lies in his attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind,

individual comes more and more to the fore and egalitarian

whereas Schiller epitomised the rehabilitation of the sensual

ideals gain ground. This is an effect of the process of emanci-

in his moral mission for the theatre. But apart from harmo-

pation of bourgeois culture. Artistically, this process came to

nising, the modern bourgeois worldview is also organic in

an end with Aestheticism, art for art’s sake. This means that

structure. This is expressed in the idea of Bildung: man has

the autonomy of art, which we saw emerge in Kant’s idea of

an essential nature which must be nurtured to bring it to

disinterestedness, had finally run its course. On this point,

fruition. The prime metaphor to understand modern culture,

Kondylis’ analysis merges with Bürger’s: the avant-garde



(or what Bürger calls the historical avant-garde) demands

space in which all individuals, lifestyles, values, or objects are

the end of art in the sense that art and life must merge. On

simply at hand. There is no hierarchy. There is no individual

a more general level, the synthetic-harmonising culture of

more valuable than any other, no lifestyle more favourable

bourgeois modernity makes way for a new culture that will

than any other. Everything is equal. Which means that things

evolve into the postmodern. The postmodern is no longer

are simply at hand in space as in a huge window display or

aimed at synthesis or harmony and is described by Kondylis

on a counter. This is the analytical aspect: everything is bro-

as ‘analytical-combinatory’ (‘analytisch-kombinatorisch’; ibid.).

ken down into its most basic constituents. The combinatory

Society is no longer harmonised but analysed into its con-

aspect next says that all these elements can be combined in

stituent parts. This means that the process of emancipation

whatever combinations we please. This means that personal-

started in bourgeois culture is taken to its logical extreme:

ity is no longer seen as a temporal thing, as in the ideal of Bil-

every individual becomes important in its unique individual-

dung. People construct their personality: they make choices,

ity. This is the emergence of the atomised society that we call

identify themselves as belonging to specific subcultures, they

mass democracy. In a 1961 lecture Langer has referred to this

choose their gender roles, their jobs, their dress, everything.

as a process of individuation; a process that she felt had ‘all

And no choice is ever final: there are no essences and every

but reached its limit. Society is breaking up into its ultimate

choice can always be traded for another styling of the self

units – single individuals, persons’ (PS 140). Langer looked at

and its mercurial identities. We no longer accumulate our

this process with some concern because ‘the fact is that in

personality through time but assemble it as a work of art. For

our Western culture [...] each individual really stands alone’

the arts this means that artists can use whatever they want

(ibid.) and many people ‘feel, but cannot understand, their

in whatever combination they want. The prime example of

loss of the sense of involvement, which makes the world

postmodern or analytical-combinatory art is the collage, or

seem like a meaningless rat race in which they are reduced

the collection of perspectives in a Cubist painting. In fact,

to nothingness, alone in life and in death’ (PS 141). A parallel

Bürger maintains that montage should be considered ‘the

process can be seen in the arts of what we now call Mod-

basic principle of avant-garde art’ (Bürger 1974: 97), partly

ernism: artists seek the primary elements of art, be it pure

because its explicitly constructed nature is the exact oppo-

colours or shapes, basic forms, or the basic elements of per-

site of the organic concept of art found in bourgeois culture

ception (Kondylis points out that modernism in history and

(Robert Rauschenberg tellingly referred to some of his works

Modernism in the arts do not coincide: artistic Modernism is

as “combines”). This again means that what Danto has called

in fact the kind of art developed in the postmodern era). This

the Post-Historical condition in art, namely the fact that

is what Danto calls the Age of Manifestos.

anything can become art or be integrated in art, is in fact a

The guiding metaphor of postmodernity is not time but

feature of artistic Modernism. Both Bürger and Kondylis show

space. Mass democracy can be represented as a huge plane or

that Danto is at least fifty years behind when he defines 1964



as the point in time where the Post-Historical era emerges.

gardless of its intent, was an actual urinal, whereas Warhol’s

If we hold that Danto errs when he sees 1964 as a watershed

Brillo Boxes, for all their resemblance to the real thing, were

in the history of art we must ask why he preferred Warhol’s

fictional representations of the actual boxes. In fact, since

Brillo Boxes over Duchamp’s upturned urinal as the crucial

Warhol’s boxes were handmade and smaller than the real

turning point in art. This choice was motivated in part by

thing they had far less formal similarities to reality than Du-

his concept of Pop Art, which, according to Danto, ‘set itself

champ’s urinal, which was (we must repeat) an actual urinal.

against art as a whole in favour of real life’. In fact, Pop Art

Because he never looks at the materiality of art, Danto simply

answered to a ‘universal sense that people wanted to en-

gets his Duchamp and his Warhol mixed up. Warhol’s faux

joy their lives now, as they were, and not on some different

boxes are much more in the tradition of the imitation of real-

plane or in some different world or in some later stage of

ity than Duchamp’s ready-mades because they are fictional

history for which the present was a preparation’ (AEA 131).

representations of the real world. If Warhol feels free to take

There is certainly truth in this: Pop Art did celebrate the or-

ordinary boxes as a motif in his art, Duchamp had already

dinary world and often had a decidedly upbeat feel. On the

gone one step further and simply used real objects as art in

other hand, much of Warhol’s and Rauschenberg’s work is

themselves. So from Danto’s point of view Duchamp’s act is

concerned with death, disaster, or neurosis, and much Pop

much more telling than Warhol’s.

is highly ironic or critical towards the reality it depicts. Nev-

But in order to see this, one must take the materiality of the

ertheless, Danto feels that what happened in Pop was pro-

works into consideration, which Danto simply does not do. So

foundly different from what happened in Duchamp. ‘What-

the fact that Danto is about fifty years behind in situating the

ever he achieved, Duchamp was not celebrating the ordinary.

turn towards the Post-Historical in 1964 is much more than

He was, perhaps, diminishing the aesthetic and testing the

an error in chronology: it points towards a deficient grasp of

boundaries of art.’ But the resemblances between Duchamp’s

what happens in art. Danto has simply magnified his own

ready-mades and Pop Art ‘are far less striking than those be-

misguided response to Warhol’s boxes to historic propor-

tween Brillo Box and ordinary Brillo cartons. What makes the

tions. Danto should have realised by now that it was his own

difference between Duchamp and Warhol is similarly far less

lack of knowledge about the recent history of art that made

difficult to state than what is the difference between art and

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes such an overwhelming experience. His

reality’ (AEA 132). Again, there is some truth in this. We can

instincts about a shift in what art was about was correct, but

agree that Duchamp’s gestures were primarily an attempt to

he should have realised that the shift had already occurred

test the boundaries of art. But then we again meet Danto’s

much earlier. Danto has simply taken the moment when he

claim that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are much more profoundly

became aware of the shift, namely 1964, as the moment that

indiscernible from reality than a Duchamp urinal. And this, I

the actual shift took place. But that is of course a fatal error.

believe, is not the case. For one thing, Duchamp’s urinal, re-

In Danto’s case the error leads to an interpretation that is



further discredited by his highly tendentious reading, or lack

Commonplace (1981) is the best place to start. Danto here ar-

of reading, of works of art as material objects. For instance,

gues his claim that ‘the philosophical question of its status

commenting on Warhol’s early paintings of comic strips and

has almost become the very essence of art itself, so that the

advertisements, Danto writes that ‘in 1961 no one would have

philosophy of art, instead of standing outside the subject and

seriously considered either the comic strip images or the

addressing it from an alien and external perspective, became

pictures used in the advertisements as art, but the Pop move-

instead the articulation of the internal energies of the sub-

ment assigned artistic value to the images of everyday life’

ject. It would today require a special kind of effort at times to

(Danto 2005b: xi). But we should not accept too readily that

distinguish art from its own philosophy. It has seemed almost

Pop Art did that. Pop artists certainly felt justified in using

the case that the entirety of the artwork has been condensed

such images as motifs in art, but that is something quite dif-

to that portion of the artwork which has always been of phil-

ferent from attributing artistic value to the everyday images

osophical interest, so that little if anything is left for the plea-

themselves. The fact that I paint a Campbell’s soup can or a

sure of artlovers. Art [...] has turned into self-consciousness,

hot-dog does not necessarily imply that I believe the soup

the consciousness of art being art in a reflexive way that bears

can or hot-dog itself to be a work of art. Here we once again

comparison with philosophy, which itself is consciousness

see Danto’s inability or unwillingness to discriminate be-

of philosophy; and the question now remains as to what in

tween an object and its artistic representation. That a paint-

fact distinguishes art from its own philosophy.’ According to

ing of a comic strip is art does not imply that the comic strip

Danto, ‘artworks have been transfigured into exercises in the

itself is art (although it might well be argued that it is if it can

philosophy of art’ and ‘the definition of art has become part

be shown to have artistic import). This is exactly what makes

of the nature of art in a very explicit way’ (TC 56). This shift

Danto an exasperating critic to argue with, for how do you

means that the Kantian-formalist approach to art has lost its

argue with a critic who claims that the fact that a painting is

relevance because the element of aesthetic pleasure is now

a painted representation is not relevant to distinguish it from its

outmoded. Art is about meanings. Danto compares art to the

model in real life?

philosophy of science, ‘which holds that there is no observation without interpretation’ and claims ‘that something of

Art and Philosophy

the same order is true in art. To seek a neutral description is

Let us return to the suggestion that the end of a master nar-

to see the work as a thing and hence not as an artwork: it is

rative about art also signals (or should logically signal) the

analytical to the concept of an artwork that there has to be

end of the avant-garde. To understand how the artworld

an interpretation’ (TC 124). This is fair enough, and Langer

has reacted to the end of the avant-garde we must first get

would certainly not dispute this since her definition of art as

a clearer understanding of what Danto sees as the special

expressive form immediately entails that there is meaning in

nature of art after the end of art. The Transfiguration of the

art, which in turn always entails the possibility of and pos-



sible need for interpretation of some kind.

meaning of “aesthetic” presupposes the first, which means

But then Danto does something interesting. He claims that

that our perception of objects cannot change in the sense

‘seeing an object, and seeing an object that interpretation

of “pertaining to beauty” either. A possible third meaning of

transforms into a work, are clearly distinct things, even when

“aesthetic” is “pertaining to whether something is or is not

in fact the interpretation gives the object back to itself, as

a work of art”. This means that to judge aesthetically is to

it were, by saying the work is the object’ (TC 125). This sug-

make an ontological differentiation between objects that are

gests that an ordinary object is somehow transformed or

and objects that are not works of art. But this third meaning

transfigured in our perception (‘seeing’) by our interpretation

of “aesthetic” renders Danto’s claim about our changed per-

of it as art. ‘As a transformative procedure, interpretation is

ception circular because he holds that there are two orders

something like baptism, not in the sense of giving a name

of aesthetic response depending on whether something is

but a new identity, participation in the community of the

a work of art or not. This means that the first two mean-

elect’ (TC 126). Taken together, these two claims suggest that

ings of “aesthetic” can only become operative after an object

the same object will be perceived differently before and after

has been evaluated under the third. But how we perceive an

“baptism” because of the interpretation attached to it. I look

object (and whether it is beautiful in perception) is hardly

at a urinal and I see a urinal. Then along comes Duchamp,

a function of its being a work of art or not. In fact, only the

who declares the urinal a work of art, and suddenly, the uri-

question of whether we will attach an interpretation to it is

nal is changed in my perception. This leads Danto to claim that

a function of its being art or not. Artworks may be declared

‘there are two orders of aesthetic response, depending upon

different kinds of objects thanks to some inaugural transfigu-

whether the response is to an artwork or to a mere real thing

rative magic, but that does not make them differently percep-

that cannot be told apart from it’ (TC 94). But this is nonsense

tible kinds of objects in comparison to ordinary things, a fact

for several reasons. First, the meaning of the word “aesthetic”

Danto will again dispute in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement

in Danto’s claim is not at all clear. Since he is discussing the

of Art, where he claims that ‘the fact that something is an

act of “seeing” indiscernible works, aesthetic could mean, as

artwork makes an aesthetic difference, even if the artwork it

it etymologically means, “pertaining to perception”. But since

is is not to be told apart from a mere thing’ (PDA 26).

interpretations are in themselves invisible, the claim that

It is an indisputable and rather unsurprising fact that works

their presence changes our perception of objects is untenable

of art become works of art because they are presented as

in this sense of “aesthetic”. But “aesthetic” could also mean,

works of art. But we must be clear about what we mean by

and is most commonly used to mean, “pertaining to beauty”.

this. I am not defending an Institutional Theory of Art by

An “aesthetic” object is then simply a “beautiful” object. But

which an object is a work of art because you or I or the art-

since an object’s beauty is a function of its sensory qualities (I

world in general say so, although I do not want to deny that

must see, touch, or hear it before I can judge it beautiful) this

the Institutional Theory has a point either: an object must



be recognised as art by someone (but that could be anyone)

The symbolic nature of art offers an important clue to an-

before it becomes a candidate for the considerations usu-

other deficiency in Danto’s meaning-centred theory of art. To

ally bestowed upon art. This is not a great postmodern or

say that a work of art is a symbol with total reference (as we

Post-Historical insight but a truth of cultural relativism that

claimed earlier) is to say that a work of art is more than the

sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have been aware

sum of its parts: the elements must come together in a uni-

of for quite some time now. Several philosophers have known

fied symbol. To say that a commonplace object and a set of

it at least since Nietzsche, and a few others might even have

meanings or theoretical musings about the nature of art can

gleaned this relativist insight in Plato’s Republic. It is, in fact,

be combined to transfigure an everyday object into a work of

common sense, and has been since the modern era opened

art is to say that the sum of the parts does make up the work

up the world to New Worlds with different cultural practices.

of art. The word “transfiguration” is simply used to hide this

The problem with the claims of the Institutional Theory, or

fact, for when object and meanings meet there is never any

with Danto’s claim that it is an interpretation that turns an

fusion of the two into a greater organic whole. In fact, with a

object into art, is therefore not that it is wrong, but that it is

gullible public (or an audience greedy for a sense of trendy

banal; it teaches us nothing new, and, most damning, it tells

insiderness) you can attach just about any meaning to any

us nothing at all about what art actually is. And if we do want

everyday object. Take a chair, any chair, and theorise about

to learn something about the nature of art, I feel we should

how it expresses anguish, and sooner or later people will see

once again turn to Langer, who has shown that what turns an

anguish in it because they project anguish onto it. But they

object into art is something in the work itself, namely what we

need to be instructed to project anguish, for very few chairs

have called its framed or fictional or symbolic nature, which

exude anguish of their own accord. This is made clear when

presents it as not coextensive with the real world and an-

we consider that another critic or artist might just as easily

nounces its utter practical uselessness. The fictional nature of

make us see the chair as expressive of joy. Really good art

a work means that it is offered merely for our contemplation.

may have many meanings for many different people, but it is

The fictional, framed, or symbolic character of the work is in-

rarely that extensive or contradictory in its possible meanings

herent in the work itself: a painting, a novel, or a play are not

because good art does not simply have meanings attached

fictional symbols because you or I say so but because they

to it, the meanings inhere in it and emerge form the symbol;

were created that way. Works of art are created to be fictional

not by some kind of semantic magic, but because the artist

symbolic representations with no practical use: that is their

has inscribed the meanings into the form (in fact, it is Dan-

purpose (a purpose without practical purpose!). To be sure, I

to’s idea of transfiguration as a kind of creative baptism that

could make practical use of a book to kindle a fire, but every-

smacks of magic). Take for example Munch’s The Scream. This

one would immediately see that this is not the appropriate

painting is not simply an expression of anguish because you

use of a book, which is made for reading.

or I say so but because the anguish is there, in the material



conditions of the work, in its form, in the colours, in the han-

sort of way) that the mere fact that one shovel is isolated,

dling of the brushwork. Similarly, a performance of Waiting for

given a title, and presented as a work of art “baptises” it as a

Godot is not about nothingness because we so decree it but if

work of art (whether it is also good or even interesting art is

and only if the performance gives us a persuasive impression

a different matter entirely). But, Danto continues, if naming

of life in the mode of nothingness. And no amount of mean-

an object can transform it into art, ‘then, surely, appreciation

ing-pandering will ever convince me or you that The Scream

of these works must in part consist in feeling the philosophi-

is all about life-enhancing joy and that Beckett’s play is about

cal tensions they must give rise to, rather than, as it were,

the responsiveness of the natural world to our deeper emo-

mooning over their Significant Forms or whatever’ (PDA 31-

tional yearnings. In fact, even Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s

32). The cheap slur against Clive Bell aside (whose notion of

Brillo Boxes will not suffer just any meaning attached to them.

“significant form” Langer developed into “expressive form”)

Meanings and interpretations do not determine whether

this is true: the whole point of such works would seem to be

something is art; let alone that they would transfigure an

philosophical. But the case again remains that we can attach

object into a different kind of object.

any manner of title or meaning to any manner of common-

These issues are so complicated, and so confusingly handled

place object and philosophise about it all we like and none

in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that Danto felt com-

of this will make any kind of aesthetic difference, unless you

pelled to return to them in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement

take “aesthetic” to mean “pertaining to whether something

of Art (1986) to try and state his case more clearly, which he

is or is not art”. This meaning, of which Danto seems to be

did in some measure (and with greater wit), but to no avail

rather fond, certainly lies behind Danto’s statement that ‘my

since his case remains unpersuasive. To illustrate his argu-

view, philosophically, is that interpretations constitute works

ment Danto now introduces another set of indiscernibles,

of art’ (PDA 23), thereby shifting the question of what deter-

which in this case happen to be Duchamp’s snow shovel and

mines whether something is art to the inaugural moment

an indiscernible counterpart. One of the shovels is given a

when some applier of interpretation bestows artness upon it;

title and turned into a work of art, the other is not. Danto

which, despite Danto’s protestations to the contrary, sounds

claims of the shovel that is “also” a work of art that ‘its pro-

suspiciously like something akin to the Institutional Theory

motion to the status of art lifts it above, or at any rate outside

of Art. And regardless of the fact that Danto now speaks of

the domain of the mere utensil, and so there is a tension af-

a “tension” between works of art and commonplace objects,

ter all between work of art and tool’ (PDA 31). I have no more

this “tension” soon evolves back into ‘an aesthetic difference,

quarrel with this, for a “tension” is surely something different

even if the artwork it is is not to be told apart from a mere

from a perceptual difference. But we now see that there is

thing like a snow shovel’ (PDA 26); so our quarrel appears to

really nothing especially remarkable about Danto’s claims,

remain after all and Danto’s text is still a muddle of confused

for it is obviously true (in a banal, Institutional Theory of Art



A final point. If Danto argues that ‘interpretation is in effect

quality was to be found in the interpretations attached to

the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world

them, I might well wonder why I should bother to visit it at

and into the artworld’ (PDA 39) this claim really only holds in

all. Surely someone could tell me all about those meanings

a relevant way for a very specific set of works which we com-

without my having to make the excursion to a room full of

monly call conceptual works of art. Put differently, Danto’s

objects adorned with nothing but bare meanings.

theory would only hold for works of art that are well and


truly indiscernibles. But as we saw, such indiscernibles are

Beauty and Ugliness

very rare indeed. Even some of Danto’s prime exhibits like

Both Danto’s inability to really look at art and his dire need

Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes can be convinc-

for some Langerian insight are put in perspective if we look

ingly shown not to be indiscernibles after all; which leaves

at some cases of practical criticism in his work. In his book

Danto building a theory on a gallery of fictional or hypotheti-

The Abuse of Beauty (2003) Danto is puzzled by the fact that

cal works of art fashioned by such luminaries as the fictional

some people describe ugly art as beautiful. He addresses this

artists J and M, who are featured throughout The Transfigura-

problem in relation to Roger Fry’s important exhibitions of

tion of the Commonplace. Danto’s theory will not withstand

“Post-Impressionist” art at the Grafton Gallery in London in

scrutiny as a general principle, for as was shown above, it is

1910 and 1912. Fry argued that such works were experienced

the fictional character, the framing of the work, that makes

by many as ugly but that people would learn to appreciate

an object a work of art; if only because the recognition of its

their beauty once they had grown accustomed to their visual

artistic nature so often precedes interpretation. I would hardly

language: ‘every work of creative design is ugly until it be-

be induced to reflect upon a snow shovel’s metaphysical or

comes beautiful,’ Fry claims (Danto 2003: 34). But Danto dis-

other meanings had I not been told beforehand that this is

agrees with Fry and claims that the works in the shows were

not a mere snow shovel but a work of art and hence must

not beautiful and that one could never learn to perceive them

have some kind of surplus meaning beyond its practical func-

as beautiful. This does not diminish the works’ importance

tion in the Zeugzusammenhang of the everyday world. Danto

or their artistic import and value. It just means that not all

might now reasonably claim that interpreting and naming an

good art is beautiful (and that not all beautiful art is good art).

object and thus lifting it into the artworld is the very act of

Danto claims that ‘Matisse’s Blue Nude [1907] is a good, even

framing it and making it fictional. If this is his meaning, we

a great painting – but someone who claims it is beautiful is

can heartily agree and we probably have no quarrel after all.

talking through his or her hat’ (o.c. 36-37). In fact, ‘when one

But even though this may be a legitimate way of turning a

says that Blue Nude is beautiful, one is merely expressing ad-

commonplace object into art, it is surely the least interesting

miration for its strength and power’ (o.c. 88). For Danto, this

(and it is certainly not a “transfiguration”). In fact, if I were

is one of the central problems with Modernism: henceforth

invited to visit an exhibition of objects whose sole artistic

there was no longer a necessary link between beauty and ar-



tistic import. Great art could be, and would be, unmistakably

objects that are manifestly ugly. It is, on the contrary, to wield

ugly. ‘But Fry made it sound as if they were going to look aes-

a concept of beauty that is more well-defined and precise,

thetically beautiful once they were understood. But [...] works

and certainly more helpful, than the traditional “aesthetic”

might still be perceived as ugly even when we have come to

one. But there is a deeper problem still, because Matisse’s

see their “artistic excellence.” The recognition of excellence

Blue Nude is not at all ‘unmistakably ugly,’ as Danto would

need not entail a transformation in aesthetic perception.

have it. The work is supremely sensual and wonderfully ex-

They don’t change before one’s eyes, like frogs into princes.

pressive. Just look at the way the breasts of the woman are

[...] The ugly does not become beautiful just because the ugly

voluptuously rendered. Look at the curves of her left leg, the

art is good. My sense is that artistic excellence is connected

slight dent in her buttocks. Although it lacks representational

with what the art is supposed to do, what effect it is intended

fidelity, this image has the look and the feel of real human

to have’ (o.c. 107).

flesh. It seems that Danto’s judgement of Matisse’s painting

One problem with this argument (besides the fact that he still

is prejudiced by Danto’s own preconceptions about what art

believes artistic import cannot lie in a work’s formal prop-

should be and how it functions. If he cannot see the stunning

erties) once again lies in the fact that Danto never defines

beauty of Matisse’s Blue Nude, Danto has no business being an

“beauty” or “aesthetic”. He here seems to use the terms in a

art critic. He is blind.

common way, referring to things that are pleasing to the eye.

But maybe we should use Danto’s arguments against him.

He uses beauty in the sense of something being beautiful to

We can do this by referring to his discussion of another

look at, in the way one might say of a person that he or she

body of work in which he does address the tension between

is beautiful. Danto does claim at one point that ‘the meaning

feeling and form and comes closer to the kind of reading

of a work of art is an intellectual product, which is grasped

that he should have applied to Matisse and Modernism. I

through interpretation by someone other than the artist, and

am referring to his discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe in

the beauty of the work, if indeed it is beautiful, is seen as en-

Playing with the Edge (1996), where Danto explains how Map-

tailed by that meaning’ (o.c. 13). But this complicates matters

plethorpe could make beautiful art out of a source material

even further because it seems to suggest that even beauty

(extreme sexual behaviour) that many would call ugly or

in the aesthetic/perceptual sense is a product of first having

disgusting. For a long time, Mapplethorpe was mostly known

seen a meaning attached to the art object. However, Danto’s

for his rather tepid classicising nudes and formulaic flower

problem, and especially his problem with Matisse’s Blue Nude,

photographs. But as several critics, Danto among them, have

disappears once we adopt a Langerian view of beauty. If

pointed out, Mapplethorpe’s greatest artistic achievement

beauty is expressiveness, then it is indeed the ‘strength and

were his infamous sex pictures, the so-called X Portfolio and

power’ of the work that we call beautiful. This is not simply a

related images that caused the uproar over the Perfect Mo-

matter of semantics, expanding the term “beauty” to include

ment exhibition. Danto argues that Mapplethorpe’s sex photos



display an unflinchingly honesty, both in the sense that they

twentieth century. For instance, when discussing the triptych

do not hypocritically seek to soften their subject matter and

Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977), which shows a man pissing in

in the sense that Mapplethorpe himself never tried to hide

another man’s mouth, Danto claims that ‘nothing in my ex-

his deep personal involvement with this subject. The sado-

perience or fantasy had prepared me for an image of that sort

masochists that appear in these images were friends of the

of act’ (o.c. 8). I wonder how any educated, worldly-wise in-

artist. Moreover, Mapplethorpe shared their sexuality and

tellectual of the 1990s could not have been aware of the fact

their fetishes and probably engaged in sexual rituals with

that some people like to engage in that kind of sexual play?

them on more than one occasion. So Mapplethorpe has cre-

For someone who has built his career on the work of Andy

ated these pictures as a kind of intimate record of a subcul-

Warhol, whose films and artwork very often address issues

ture to which he belonged. The fact that his photographs are

of sexual edge-play, not to mention pissing, Danto seems to

often very stylishly composed can cloud the fact that these

be striking a very coy pose here. But regardless of the undeni-

are intensely personal images. But Danto argues, persua-

able brutality of some of the images, such as those of a blood-

sively, that it is their stylisation that allows them to succeed

scattered penis trapped in what looks like a kind of mouse-

as art. For Danto, Mapplethorpe’s personal engagement with

trap, it was not Mapplethorpe’s primary intent to shock.

his subject sets him apart from other photographers, such as

Rather, as he himself liked to point out, he was “playing with

Diane Arbus. ‘With Arbus, one feels, over and over again, that

the edge”. For Danto, this means that Mapplethorpe’s work

she found ways of betraying the trust that permitted her to

was a balancing act between art and porn, an attempt ‘to

get the pictures we see. There is something vaguely exploit-

achieve “smut that is also art”’ (o.c. 76). To argue this point,

ative about her work’ (Danto 1996: 43). Mapplethorpe, on the

Danto uses Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung, which is a process

contrary, ‘was remorselessly sincere’ as an artist. ‘In a video

in which two radical opposites are brought together and

made for Spanish television, Sam Wagstaff [Mapplethorpe’s

lifted up on a higher plane, where they coexist in a new unity

benefactor, collector, and lover] said that Mapplethorpe was

that somehow neutralises their opposition. For Mappletho-

the most honest person he had ever known. This is borne out

rpe’s work, Aufhebung means two things. First, the subject

in the interviews. Mapplethorpe is unflinching. One cannot

matter of the photographs should be frankly acknowledged:

read very many of them without being struck by his absolute

it is a sometimes brutally explicit rendering of extreme sex-

candour. He never dodges a question. It is this honesty that

ual acts. But second, the images are composed in a way that

characterises the self-portraits as well. Even when he got

often makes them strangely beautiful. This is how Aufhebung

himself up as a devil or a girl, or a punk, it was in the interest

comes about in Mapplethorpe’s pictures. ‘There is the energy

of discovery and personal truth’ (o.c. 55).

of the displayed sex, and there is its containment, its absorp-

The sex pictures are sometimes disturbing, depending on

tion, into the work of art. It is preserved and negated at the

one’s naiveté about the sexual realities of life in the late

same moment’ (Danto 1996: 82).


But we need not make a detour trough Hegel to make this

(such as offal) in their art. But it does show that people who

point for the dynamic of Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures is a

claim that seemingly ugly works of art are beautiful are not

fine example of the coming together of feeling and form in

talking trough their hats.

Langer’s sense. Perusing Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures, one is


struck by the tension between form and content. This tension

Killing Art

is especially noticeable in the fact that the subjects of the pic-

When art strives towards the condition of philosophy it be-

tures always retain their humanity. Mapplethorpe makes the

comes conceptual art. According to Danto the path towards

trust between the men, and between them and him as a pho-

this transfiguration starts in the eighteenth century, with the

tographer, almost palpably present. The stylised features of

invention of the discipline of aesthetics as a way of keep-

these photographs do not seek to embellish what would oth-

ing art separate from what really matters in the shaping of

erwise be brutally shocking or “merely” pornographic; they

human life and society: politics. This is Danto’s objection

express the calm dedication and trust with which these men

to Kantian disinterestedness: just like Plato kept art at bay

explore the limits of their bodies and their sexuality. And it

because it was too distant from the real reality (of the realm

is in this sense, and not in the more superficial “aesthetic”

of Ideas) the element of disinterestedness assured that art

sense, that form fits feeling in these works. Obviously, Map-

would not get involved with the things that ‘normally move

plethorpe’s photographs exhibit a classical composition that

men and women – money, power, sex, love’ (PDA 9). So Danto

makes them eligible for “beauty” in the traditional “aesthetic”

reads disinterestedness in a political way, and an interesting

sense. But what makes them great art is not this composi-

political way in view of our earlier historical survey, which

tional feature, but the way feeling and form are welded to-

showed that bourgeois culture developed towards the au-

gether in their features. I would argue that this same welding

tonomy of art (its disinterestedness) with a concomitant in-

of feeling and form occurs in Matisse’s Blue Nude and in many

efficiency of art. Aesthetics thus becomes part, for Danto, of

other works of art that Danto would judge “unmistakably

something politically oppressive. That is probably why Danto

ugly (although great art)”. What we gain from this approach

somewhat sarcastically (and not quite correctly) describes

is not only a relevant increase of beautiful objects (things

Kantian disinterestedness as ‘a tepid gratification since un-

that are called ugly turn out not to be ugly at all) but also

connected with the satisfaction of real needs or the achieve-

increased insight in our own reasons for finding such objects

ment of real goals. So it is a kind of narcoleptic pleasure, the

beautiful (we now know that their welding of feeling and

pleasure which consists in the absence of pain’ (PDA 11).

form appeals to a sense of beauty that is more complex than

Danto next claims that this modern aesthetics has left ‘seri-

the traditional aesthetic one). This does not deny the fact that

ous artists to suppose it their task to make beauty’ (PDA 12),

there is indeed a lot of art that is (meant to be) manifestly

which seems to me wholly unpersuasive in view of both the

ugly, as when artists consciously use disgusting materials

political charge of Romanticism and Realism and the formal



investigations of the many kinds of Modernism, not to men-

have become indiscernibles: everyday objects with no signifi-

tion the provocations of the historical avant-garde; none of

cant aesthetic properties to mark their difference from other

which were concerned with anything so “parochial” as mak-

everyday objects. What turns them into art is the theory at-

ing beauty. Even Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism was considered

tached to them. And to top it all off, Danto obviously sees a

such a subversive affront to polite society that the man was

historical necessity in this late condition of art. ‘If something

brutally destroyed by genteel backwardness.

like this view has the remotest chance of being plausible, it

But we might save our dispute over Danto’s historical survey

is possible to suppose that art had come to an end. Of course,

for another occasion and look at what was the philosophical

there will go on to be art-making. But art-makers, living in

present for Danto when he was writing down these ideas in

what I like to call the post-historical period of art, will bring

The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986). At that point

into existence works which lack the historical importance or

(which for Danto had begun in 1964) the central question had

meaning we have for a very long time come to expect. The

become ‘what should art be if it throws off the bondage to

historical stage of art is done with when it is known what art

prettiness?’ (PDA 13) We started our discussion with Danto’s

is and means. The artists have made the way open for phi-

claim about the end of art in the sense that art had become

losophy, and the moment has arrived at which the task must

essentially self-reflexive, and self-reflection now unsurpris-

be transferred finally into the hands of philosophers’ (ibid.).

ingly turns out to be exactly the sort of thing that art without

All of this may well make one wonder if art should really

prettiness should be: ‘if we look at the art of our recent past

continue to be made at all. If art is really about philosophy

in these terms, grandiose as they are, what we see is some-

and not about crafting expressive forms then why not simply

thing which depends more and more upon theory for its

do away with art schools and academies and recognise that

existence as art, so that theory is not something external to

philosophers, or people with an MA in philosophy, are the

a world it seeks to understand, so that in understanding its

real artists now? What could conceivably be taught at an art

object it has to understand itself. But there is another feature

school that is not already and better taught at the philosophy

exhibited by these late productions which is that the objects

departments of universities? By the same token we might

approach zero as their theory approaches infinity, so that

now suggest that all philosophers are really simply artists

virtually all there is at the end is theory, art having finally

and that they have failed to understand their own identity in

become vaporised in a dazzle of pure thought about itself,

thinking themselves to be only philosophers (as distinct from

and remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theo-

artists). In any case, the suggestion that art is now philoso-

retical consciousness’ (PDA 111). Behold, then, o reader, the

phy is both elucidating and problematic for several reasons.

birth of conceptual art from the mind of the Hegelian theorist

First, it offers us a clue to the lamentable state of art itself in

as the Great Transfigurator of the Commonplace Object. Ap-

the wake of the big turn towards the conceptual. In the 1970s

proaching zero in the arts simply means that works of art

art schools all but acted upon the suggestion to do away



with themselves in the sense that many academies simply

ience of matter. But most of all, it will give him something to

stopped training their students in elementary draughtsman-

revolt against. The idea of artists who cannot and were never

ship and painting because such skills had become outmoded

taught to draw rejecting or revolting against the idea of draw-

and had been superseded by the conceptual and the mini-

ing is preposterous: it is mere posturing because there is no

malist modes. In lieu of academic technique students got

true knowledge of what one is rebelling against. The attitude

Theory. In Unnatural Wonders (2005) Danto has described this

is simply facile, if only because it insults other artists who did

evolution: ‘The institutions of the art world began to change

submit to the discipline of the hand and emerged with mean-

radically in response to the radical pluralism that overtook

ingful art. It also overlooks the fact that many of the artists

it in what I spoke of in the “posthistorical” period we had

who lead the way towards the Post-Historical era, including

entered. In art schools, for example, skills were no longer

Warhol, were accomplished craftsmen in their chosen art

taught. The student was treated from the beginning as an

who could draw and paint well and whose swerve away from

artist, and the faculty existed to help the students realise

the classical approaches to the visual arts was motivated by

their ideas. The attitude was that the student would learn

a sincere search for new ways of expression. But the dam-

whatever he or she needed in order to make what he or she

age was done and few seemed to care. In fact, young artists

wanted. Everyone used everything and anything – audio, vid-

(or rather: young people who for many reasons believed they

eo, photography, performance, installation. Students could be

were, could, or should be artists) were now being tutored in

painters or sculptors if they liked, but the main thing was to

the resentment of skill by artists who no longer mastered or

find the means to embody the meanings they were interested

cared about those skills. Today, many instructors are very bad

in conveying’ (Danto 2005b: xiv-xv).

craftsmen themselves. They are ill-placed to teach younger

You see the folly of this approach: an artist, let alone a young

artists their craft. The damage done in one generation will

student, cannot suddenly decide to sojourn for a while in a

take several generations to undo as artists who are interested

new branch of the arts for which he or she neither has train-

in skill will have to find out on their own what had previously

ing nor talent or inclination. There is a difference between a

been transmitted from master to student for centuries. The

pluralist and a lacklustre approach to art, and what we were

scandal of art education in the so-called pluralist era shows

getting here was definitely not any kind of focused art-mak-

how easy it is to destroy a tradition. The results of this hor-

ing. To check in on what’s happening and help students em-

ribly misguided evolution are everywhere on display in the

body their ideas du jour hardly amounts to what I would call

dismal art that has poured forth since the 1970s: mediocre (or

an education. To begin with, it is at odds with the very psy-

worse) painting where the artist’s inability to master form is

chology of education: even if one disapproves of a classical

sold as a conscious rejection, a revolt, a highly moral gesture,

training in the arts, at least it will hone a budding artist’s skill

or what you will. Ineptitude was now being paraded around

and perseverance, it will teach him patience and the resil-

as expressiveness. But in order to deconstruct a technique



you have to know it from the inside. Artists like Picasso had

make good films if one has (developed) the cinematic sensi-

earned the moral right to subvert form because they had

bility that this requires. Some of the great masters of modern

submitted to its discipline and knew exactly what they were

cinema, such as Pasolini or Derek Jarman, came to the film

doing when they distorted shapes in their work. In fact, their

without one iota of technical know-how, for which they relied

distortions often testify to superior craftsmanship where

on trained technicians. But they had vision and were able to

most of the latter-day work is not even convincing as distor-

translate that vision to the screen. Obviously, an artist should

tion to begin with.

carefully consider in which medium he or she wants to work.

Obviously, I applaud the artist’s freedom to tackle any me-

Nobody is forced to draw or paint, but if you insist on doing

dium in the pluralist era and nobody would want to condemn

so, you had better learn something about the skills you are

the contemporary artist to so pedestrian a practice as to draw

addressing. It is all very well to speak of expressiveness to

accurately from life (God forbid!). But it would be nice if an

cover up your inability, and no doubt you will find some critic

artist could consider, before venturing into any new medium,

willing to rave about your expressiveness, but the discerning

whether he or she has any inclination or gift for that particu-

eye of the true art-lover can often tell at a glance whether a

lar branch of the Muse. I do not think I am asking for much.

painting is a deliberate distortion by a gifted hand or a mere

In fact, I am asking for very little for I do not even believe

symptom of ineptitude. Again, to distort form you must first

one needs to have any particular technical knowledge of cer-

master it. For the same reason, being a dyslectic will not help

tain media to create superior work in them. Surely, to draw

you write the next Finnegans Wake. It takes intimate knowl-

or paint one needs to master some technique. But consider

edge of how language works in order to subvert it in a mean-

experimental film-making. In the 1960s first 16mm and then

ingful way. It takes much deliberation and a firm purpose of

8mm equipment became affordable for the average person,

gesture to do anything well in the arts. In the final reckoning,

allowing literally anyone to become a filmmaker. And for a

it even takes a lot of very good thought to produce a convinc-

brief time it seemed that everyone actually did. But the great

ing work of conceptual art, although we should consider very

masters who finally emerged as the leaders of the move-

carefully whether a thought and nothing but a thought (ad-

ment, such as Warhol, Brakhage, and Markopoulos, were not

mittedly with a commonplace object attached to it) is a work

necessarily the greatest technicians. In fact, filming equip-

of art at all or mere pedantry.

ment became so user-friendly that sometimes all you had to

All of this leaves us with the obvious question of what con-

do was literally aim the camera and press a button to record,

ceptual art is, whether it is art at all and when, if it is, it

as Warhol did. These days, with digital video technology, we

should be considered good art. In view of our severe criticism

are witnessing a similar revival. But despite the enormous

of the conceptual mode of artistic interpretation, I feel an

simplicity of the technology, very few filmmakers achieved

answer to these questions is certainly not too much to ask.

great works for the very simple reason that one can only

And my answer is brief. I suggest we agree that conceptual



art is not art at all. Since interpretations do not add anything

Avant-Garde After the End of Avant-Garde

aesthetic to a commonplace object, or at least nothing in an

A second problem with art as philosophy has to do with

interesting sense of aesthetic (which would be the first two of

the philosophy itself and leads us straight into the complex

the possible three listed before), and since all this talk about

problem of the avant-garde after the end of the avant-garde.

transfiguration through interpretation is very much rhetori-

If conceptual art, and Post-Historical art in general, ap-

cal because no transformative fusion of object and interpre-

proaches zero it also becomes more and more cerebral. This

tation ever takes place (in opposition, for example, to the way

trend found a parallel movement in the world of philosophy,

forms, colours, and canvas are fused to create a painting that,

where postmodern Theory became all the rage in the 1960s.

as a prime symbol, is more than the sum of those constituent

Gradually, several kinds of structuralist and post-structuralist

parts), conceptual art really offers us two things: a piece of

French philosophy became the leading school of thought.

philosophy or theory on the one hand, and on the other hand

This kind of postmodern philosophy is so idiosyncratic that

an object that is supposed to convince us of the artistic and

it is often simply called “theory” instead of philosophy and

creative nature of the person ushering it in. I do not dispute

I shall continue to refer to it as “Theory,” capitalised to refer

that conceptual art has often raised very interesting issues,

to its status as a kind of movement. To understand the sud-

even issues of the greatest importance. But an issue is not a

den rise of this very cerebral branch of philosophy we must

work of art and a commonplace object is not turned into art

understand the dire straits the humanities found themselves

because it comes, reportedly, with an issue attached to it. If

in in the late 1960s. It was a crisis that is still not over today

the issues raised by conceptual art are interesting and rel-

and that revolved around the justification of the humanities.

evant, they are interesting philosophy. But philosophy is not

In a world obsessed with economy, growth, progress, and

art, unless it happens to be expressed in a book or an essay

productivity it is very difficult to argue for the legitimacy of

that displays remarkable literary qualities (for the essay, we

the humanities, which seem to be going nowhere and usu-

should remember, is a literary genre and hence belongs in the

ally produce nothing remotely marketable. They tend to be as

realm of art). All the conceptual object serves is the supposed

useless as the arts they study. The advent of Theory suddenly

artist’s ego. Conceptual art now offers even the person void of

allowed professors and critics in the humanities to pretend

any talent except a talent for sophistry to present herself as

they were involved in something scientific and progressive.

an artist. “Conceptual artist” is the chosen profession for any

The jargon involved in Theory created and arcane aura of

art-hack who would like to have his cookie and eat it: to have

cutting edge concepts that were constantly yielding new in-

an opinion about art is now a work of art in itself. What bet-

sights into power, social structures, sexuality, or what not. It

ter way to boost your ego and create an inflated sense of your

suddenly appeared that the humanities might yield knowl-

own importance?

edge as verifiable and quantifiable as the knowledge generated by physics and biology. And the jargon involved certainly



sounded as if this new Theory was just as state of the art and

umbrella of male authority and one-man rule: the French big-

just as fine-tuned as the theories that were used in physics.

wigs offered to their disciples a soothing esoteric code and a

For such reasons the appeal of postmodern Theory was very

sense of belonging to an elite, an intellectually superior unit,

strong. Suddenly people in the humanities started practising

at a time when the market told academics they were useless

all manner of “deconstruction” if they happened to be follow-

and dispensable’ (Paglia 1992: 220). In an Open Letter to the

ers of Derrida while those in thrall with Foucault decided en

students of Harvard, published in the February 17, 1994 issue

masse that they should apply themselves to sex, or sexuality,

of the Harvard Crimson, Paglia added that ‘the bottom fell out

and set about hunting for phalluses and androcentrism in

of the Harvard literature departments in the Seventies. They

works of art previously innocent of any kind of political in-

had failed to find new blood to continue Harvard’s reputa-


tion into the next generation [...]. The English department

The results of all this activity were often disastrous because

nearly went into receivership. [...]. Desperate, the Harvard

the people who ventured into these new areas were not very

administration went on a fast shopping expedition and filled

well-prepared to deal with the issues at hand. To begin with,

the faculty with the current hot property, theorists, many of

their knowledge of philosophy was usually too limited to see

them women, as an affirmative action sop. Now you’re stuck

the philosophical tradition that had shaped the postmodern

with them. [...] Harvard, which sacrificed scholarly standards

mode. For example, there is little point in discussing decen-

for expedience, has condemned itself to at least two genera-

tredness without having a clue that decentredness was not a

tions of mediocrity in the humanities, since these people are

new invention by Lacan but something that had already been

certain to hire only those who will prop up their decaying

analysed very well by the Romantics, especially Friedrich

reputations’ (Paglia 1995: 119-120).

Schlegel, Novalis, Hölderlin, and the much-neglected Lud-

But even among the critics who did manage to get things

wig Tieck (see Chapter One). Furthermore, much of Lacan’s

right there arose a problem. This problem is linked to the pro-

theories of language had already been formulated in the

fessionalisation of the arts. We have recently witnessed the

dialectics and hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher. But

introduction of PhD programmes in the arts. This innovation

academics were simply blinded by the wordplay of the French

was sold as an initiative beneficial to artists when it was in

philosophes and the mileage their careers could get from quot-

fact only beneficial to a specific group of artists: those whose

ing them. Referring specifically to the situation at American

work had close links with the kind of Theory that emerged

universities, Camille Paglia writes that ‘the collapse of the job

in the Post-Historical era. If art is about philosophy, and phi-

market, due to recession and university retrenchment after

losophy is about Theory, it is not difficult to guess what kind

the baby-boom era, caused economic hysteria. As faculties

of art would now become the very image of PhD-worthy art.

were cut, commercial self-packaging became a priority. Aca-

It is clear that the PhD in the arts entails the very grave risk

demics, never renowned for courage, fled beneath the safe

of splitting the already rivalry-ridden art community even



further into the haves and the have-nots. If sufficient artists

uses the PhD as a tool to hold the profession in what William

attain a PhD to make this a substantial group within the art

James has compared, in an indictment of the PhD system

community a difference is bound to arise sooner or later be-

written in 1903, with the stranglehold of an octopus (James

tween those who did get it and those who didn’t, with those

1987: 1111-1118). I think that the PhD in the arts serves at

who did enjoying greater stature because they are obviously

least three highly interconnected purposes in the artworld,

the more clever ones and therefore the more profound or bet-

where it is used as a strategic device in the struggle for power

ter artists. Obviously, art is never that easy. But markets usu-

(in the kondylian sense). By giving art the aura of scientific

ally are. And the sad thing about art is that really good art has

legitimacy the PhD in the arts shows administrators and

really nothing in common with a real art market: their aims

politicians that art is not simply about subjective expression

and methods are completely at odds. Advocates of the PhD

but about something analysable, something positive, tangible,

in the arts usually speak of art as a form of research, which

and somehow measurable; or at least measurable in the

sounds innocent enough because art obviously does entail a

sense that a committee of “experts� is able to discriminate

kind of research, as we saw in our discussion of David Hock-

between art that is worthy of a PhD-label and art that regret-

ney. Unfortunately, artistic research has little in common

tably is not. But in the careerist world of academe and the

with the kind of research involved in science, even in the

greedy world of the art market one scores no points for try-

humanities, and is first and foremost an inner exploration,

ing, so not winning the PhD race means something like losing

a process of thought and reflection, and finally an attempt

the art race: you become something like what Katlijne Van

to shape matter (paint, wood, words, clay, sound) into an

der Stighelen, one of my teachers at Louvain University, liked

expressive form. This is research all right, but only in a very

to call the zweite Garnitur: the secondary artists whose names

specific and non-objective sense. After all, we saw that a work

are known only to specialists and not to the general public.

of art is one indivisible symbol that cannot be analysed into

These artists are the filler of history because their work,

its constituent parts. This should make us suspicious of any

while often popular in their own time, is second-rate. In this

kind of programme that looks at art from what is basically a

sense, the PhD in the arts signals the icing on the cake of the

discursive point of view: art as PhD-oriented research means

yuppification of the arts that started with the surge of the art

that the process of creation can be tracked and analysed,

market in the 1980s: sooner or later it will become a career-

resulting in a manual or PhD thesis to accompany whatever

making or -breaking certificate that determines whether your

work is presented as a PhD project.

art will sink or swim, or, more importantly, sell or not. The

I would suggest that the introduction of the PhD in the arts is

second purpose served by the PhD in the arts is a direct con-

mainly a very clever marketing tool in artworld politics that

sequence of the first. Since the PhD-programme is a direct

has been created for the benefit of a group or school of critics

consequence of the Post-Historical condition of art in its nar-

and artists with high stakes in the marketplace. This group

row sense of conceptual art (art striving to the condition of



philosophy), it creates a false sense of progressiveness in the

artists-as-researchers mutually sustain each other’s reputa-

arts and in the humanities. Researchers, artists-as-research-

tions. Obviously, such mechanisms have always been at work

ers, and critics are now explorers of new frontiers of thought

in the artworld. The finest and probably most tragic example

where no man hath thought before, making ever new prog-

is without doubt the huge influence of Clement Greenberg in

ress into the vast and as yet unclaimed fields of theoretical

the 1950s and his slow withdrawal into total silence as the

insight. The history of art-as-research is then portrayed as

1960s progressed and the Bright Young Things of the Concep-

an epic history of artistic exploration, phrased in Theory. It is

tual Era took over. What is different from the past, however, is

very easy to see how this can lead to a renewed sense of the

that the very people who maintain a power elite in the art-

avant-garde: there is now a small elite of insiders, Those Who

world are also the people who are constantly babbling about

Know And Speak Theory, who are at the vanguard of art and

multiculturalism, diversity, and open discourse, which are

philosophy, urging history on even after its much-publicised

reportedly central concerns in their high-minded theoreti-

and even more elaborately theorised demise. Those of us who

cal endeavours. But these are false claims to diversity. What

do not think or write Theory are the poor sods who missed

these careerist theorists have really done is create theoretical

the gravy-train of history, the silly naifs who still cling to an

enclaves that effectively bar many dissident voices from be-

outdated belief in form, matter, or aesthetics. We are the dull

ing heard or included in the debate. In many circles a critic,

duds, whereas the international magnates of Theory are the

artist, or hanger-on is only allowed to join the party if he or

shining sophisticates.

she either speaks theoretical newspeak or is willing to wor-

The third purpose of the PhD in the arts is again a function of

ship at the feet of those who do. Gullibility and sycophantism

the previous two, for the dynamics of false progressiveness

seem to be the prime characteristics of The Person Sure To

and neo-avant-garde sensibilities allows collectors, curators,

Rise Fast In The Cultural Realm. The system of Theory in-

and critics (what Danto calls the three C’s of the artworld) to

cludes a network of academics, curators, journal editors, and

determine just where the really hot stuff is happening. Here

critics who have created a power zone that determines who’s

another layer of insidious insiderness is added to the game,

in and who’s not.

for many of the curators and critics involved are themselves

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the problems with the

the product of an academic education drenched in Theory.

PhD in the arts are similar to the problems we found in

So they have a lot at stake: their intellectual credibility de-

Danto’s idea of embodied meanings. We said earlier that the

pends on the continuing reign of Theory as the One True

meanings attached to a commonplace object do not become

Form of Criticism. Writing about cerebral art allows these

embodied in it by fiat; which is to say that if you claim that

critics to flex their theoretical muscles, display their astute-

certain meanings are embodied in an object, they should be

ness in selecting the Art That Matters, and hence forward

there for our perception and we should be able to see those

their upwardly mobile careers. This way, critics, theorists, and

meanings inscribed into the object itself. Similarly, if a PhD in



the arts results in an object (or a performance or whatever)

called street art. Obviously, street art is not entirely new. Its

with an accompanying explanatory thesis, I feel we should

inclusion in the world of high art started with the inflated

say that it has failed as art. If the art object (or performance

reputations of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the

or whatever) requires a text on the side to explain its mean-

1980s. But since the turn of the millennium the artworld has

ings, then the art work in itself lacks expressive force. It

been especially receptive to street art, street photography and

needs crutches to tell us what it is about. So what you get, is

similar forms of artistic expression that have emerged from

bad art with a theoretical statement attached to it. Neither

youth cultures. The exhibition and catalogue Beautiful Losers

the work nor the text are successful art or philosophy on

(2004) were something of a watershed in this development,

their own. What has been achieved is not a PhD in the arts

but arguably the critical success of Larry Clark’s film Kids

but, at best, a PhD in philosophy of the arts, in theory, in so-

(1995) was equally a tell-tale sign that there was a growing

ciology, or whatever, but with an object attached. The PhD in

awareness within the broader artworld of what was happen-

the arts is only justified if the research is expressed and com-

ing in the street. If we look, ever so briefly, at the precedents

municated in the work itself. Recalling David Hockney’s re-

for this development, it could be argued that the tradition of

search into our perception of space, it is clear that his works

street photography harks back to the 1960s and 1970s, when

do not need texts to explain them (although good criticism

photographers like Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyons, and espe-

can often be illuminating, good art should not depend on

cially Dian Arbus took to the streets to photograph the grim

it). The research and its findings are there in the works if you

realities of everyday life. This eased the way for Larry Clark,

only know how to look. Similarly, Matisse once said that if you

whose seminal book Tulsa (1971) collected photographs of his

want to be a painter, ‘then begin by cutting off your tongue.

friends on the fringes of society. Clark in turn proved a huge

Henceforth, your expression will be left to your brushes’

influence on a generation of photographers who emerged at

(Parry 2004: 4). This brings us full circle back to Langer, whose

the end of the 1970s. Nan Goldin is the most remarkable pho-

concept of living form is of course the very definition of em-

tographer of this generation. Her work, which we shall dis-

bodiment of meaning in a work of art. In Hockney’s work, as

cuss in more detail in Chapter Five, is decidedly narrative in

in all good art, the meanings he expresses are truly embodied

tone, often autobiographical, draws on human sexuality and

because his meanings, and his research, are there for us to

emotions, and casts a critical eye upon society through its fo-

see. They shape the very works that express them.

cus on the lives of society’s rejects and minorities (transvestites, drug addicts, people with aids). Goldin’s signature work

Radical Chic for Chic Radicals

was The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1982), a feature-length

But the new sense of avant-gardism is not only apparent in

narrative slide presentation of her photographs which was

the use of Theory. I believe it is equally at work in the way

influenced by the work of the underground filmmaker Jack

the artworld has dealt with a relatively recent phenomenon

Smith who, through lack of funding, had largely abandoned



film-making at the beginning of the 1970s and turned to cre-

the screenplay for Clark’s film Kids before turning to directing

ating outrageous slide presentations with exotic imagery that


often featured, beside himself and several underground per-

Several trends within the artworld helped to smoothen the

sonalities, a toy penguin.

way for street art into the gallery. To see this we must again

The critical success of Goldin and Clark paved the way for

return to the 1980s and the emergence of issue-based and

another generation of street photographers. Ari Marcopoulos,

identity art. This was a highly politicised form of art in which

for instance, originally heralded from the Netherlands and

victimhood and identity often took precedence over aesthetic

worked for a while as an assistant to Warhol before produc-

issues. Certain artists such as David Wojnarowicz, whose

ing his own body of work for which he often gets inside spe-

writing is especially persuasive, managed to transcend the

cific subcultures such as the world of skaters or snowboard-

merely political and personal claims of this movement, but

ers. In Transitions and Exits (2000), his book on snowboard

much of the work created within its framework was of dis-

culture, Marcopoulos explains that he sees his work as a form

mal quality. The work of such luminaries as Judy Chicago,

of artistic anthropology, ‘investigating who these people were,

Karen Finley, and Barbara Kruger has dated badly and seems

how they were connected to each other, what their rituals

to have lost much of its relevance with the passing of the

were, how they constituted themselves’. Probably the most

time-bound political issues it addressed. This is indeed a sign

gifted photographer of this new generation is Ed Templeton, a

of bad art, because there is no intrinsic reason why politi-

former skateboard champion whose reputation as an athlete

cal art could not also be good or great art (let us not forget,

has secured his privileged access to this particular subcul-

for example, that Michelangelo’s David was also a work of

ture. But Templeton also documents his personal life and

propaganda art, a warning against the Medici tyrants who

often presents very intimate imagery of his wife and himself.

had been expelled from Florence; Hibbard 1992: 58). Whether

Templeton has also produced a considerable body of work as

political and issue-based art will prove enduring depends on

a painter, but this is considerably less accomplished than his

whether it will be art first or political first. A second influence

work in photography. The Beautiful Losers exhibition of 2004

within the artworld was the explosion of the art-market in

brought together the work of Templeton with that of many

the wake of Reaganomics. In the 1980s prices for often me-

of his contemporaries, including Mark Gonzalez, Harmony

diocre contemporary art soared beyond belief, leading to the

Korine, Cheryl Dunn, Spike Jonze, Margaret Kilgallen, Ryan

inevitable burst of the bubble by the end of the decade. Since

McGinley, Mike Mills, Terry Richardson, and many others.

then the situation has hardly changed, as Saatchi’s pushing

Several of these artists, notably Jonze and Richardson, have

of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) clearly showed: if an art-

since acquired considerable fame and artistic reputations. It

ist’s reputation can be made or unmade by the buy-and-sell

is interesting to note that Larry Clark has actively sought to

policies of an influential collector (who might not even be an

engage this new generation. In fact, Harmony Korine wrote

actual connoisseur of art, but simply an entrepreneur) then



there is nothing left to distinguish the artworld from the free

always been rejected by the dominant culture, including the

market at large.

artistic establishment. But they erroneously infer from this

In fact, capitalist logic now controls the art-market. Markets

that what is misunderstood by the mainstream cultural press

are in constant need of input of fresh faces, fresh work, fresh

must necessarily be the next great avant-garde. But some-

reputations, and the next hot thing. Every new season and

times art is overlooked or dismissed because it just isn’t good

every new opening is supposed to bring us new revelations

enough. It is true that much and perhaps even most great

and revolutions. In this sense, the artworld has come to re-

modern art was initially rejected, sometimes even for years

semble the porn industry, where careers are brief and new

and decades on end, but that obviously does not imply that

faces appear with deadening regularity. The artworld is now

to be neglected is to be great by definition.

constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, living from

Much of the art that is reproduced in the Beautiful Losers

hype to hype. This explains the hugely inflated reputations

catalogue is not very sophisticated. And I do not mean so-

of such middling talents as Haring, Basquiat, or Jeff Koons.

phisticated on a theoretical or conceptual level, but simply

Interestingly, Koons once claimed that his then-wife, Ilona

on a stylistic or even painterly level. It often looks bland and

Staller, better known as the Italian porn star La Cicciolina, ‘is

sometimes even amateurish. One gets the impression that

one of the greatest artists in the world. She is a great com-

the basic artistic and iconographical language that underlies

municator, a great liberator. Other artists use a paintbrush.

such street art has not notably developed since the time of

Ilona uses her genitalia’ (Muthesius 1992: 142). Koons did not

Haring and Basquiat. There is a reason for this. Street art

half know how right he was, for La Cicciolina’s work in erotic

works within specific codes and has a very distinctive aes-

cinema is probably much more interesting than anything

thetic. It ranges from skateboard and surf design through

Koons ever did. In any case, since the 1980s high-profile art-

graffiti art and tagging. I think this suggests that we are deal-

ists have often presented themselves as entrepreneurs and

ing here with a form of folk art, a subcultural phenomenon

careerists, working for the market rather than working from

that is comparable to biker culture, surf culture, and maybe

necessity or compulsion. Today there are artists who do not

even sports culture and the iconography that it inspires. Per-

work if they do not get paid. But the fear of missing the next

haps an exhibition of such work, which is very valuable in

big thing also informs the Beautiful Losers catalogue, and this

itself, would be more honestly at home in an institution such

is especially revealing of the way the artworld operates today.

as the Smithsonian than in a museum for contemporary art.

In an instructive piece of artworld marketing strategy, the

There is still a difference between design, folk art, and what

authors of the catalogue compare the neglect that street art

we might call, for better or for worse, high art or fine art. In

had previously suffered to the neglect the artworld initially

this sense it is very telling that Ed Templeton has kept his ac-

lavished upon such important movements as the Beat poets

tivities as a designer of skateboards strictly separate from his

and Pop Art. The authors point out that the avant-garde has

work as a visual artist. The design shop is a job, the photogra-



phy and the painting are his art. Similarly, graffiti has proved

ence life on the fringe is possibly a reason why explicit sexual

to be a highly intelligent and subversive means of expression,

photography such as that of Larry Clark has become so popu-

especially in the hands of gifted artists such as Banksy. But

lar: it feeds a voyeuristic need to boldly go and see where no

we must ask ourselves if we are really doing these artists a

proper artworld person has ever gone or seen before. Similar-

favour by bringing them into museums for contemporary

ly, the wave of porn chic we have seen in the artworld is clad

art. Does this not undermine the purpose of their work? This

in the same hypocritical garb. The curators who set up porn

kind of work has been described as non-commissioned pub-

in their galleries or who commission artists to produce tepid

lic art (a great euphemism to describe the fact that graffiti

pieces for portmanteau film projects such as Destricted would

is often simply illegal from the point of view of the powers

probably not be caught dead in an actual sex shop or perus-

that be), and this shows that much of it is intimately linked

ing the adult section of their local video store. Yes, we want

to contemporary forms of activism, such as the Reclaim The

images of whores and call-boys in our gallery, but would you

Streets manifestations that seek to oppose oppressive domi-

sit down with them for dinner? Would you go out into the

nant culture. But to treat such subversive work as high art is

streets at night and spend an hour with them on a bench,

often to aestheticise and hence defuse it.

discussing the hardships of life on the street? I don’t think

However, the political charge of much street art is possibly

so. All of this is not a criticism of the art involved. As with all

the reason why the artworld is so eager to bring it into its

art, there is a lot of very bad street art, a considerable amount

museums. This has everything to do with radical chic. Since

of good street art, and some of it will no doubt turn out to be

the avant-garde is officially dead, it has become difficult for

great. What I am critical of is the way the artworld deals with

artists and art institutions to prove their edge merely on the

this kind of art. There is a lingering feeling that the easy ac-

basis of aesthetic or formal properties. So the edge must be

ceptance of street art in the artworld has less to do with the

sought elsewhere. To flaunt street art in one’s gallery or mu-

artistic merits of the work itself than with the desire of the

seum is to bask in the light of the streetwise. It is to dress

artworld to maintain a sense of the avant-garde after the end

oneself up in an air of hipness. It is to live the life of the

of avant-garde.

street vicariously. The new avant-garde is an avant-garde of radical chic and lifestyle. You prove how open-minded and radical you are by embracing the marginal, the transsexual, the criminal, the radical. If art itself has become obsolete, attitude is everything. No matter that the artist cannot paint, he is a drug fiend and this makes him cool. And we, showing his work, share in his coolness. It is the facade of daring, it is playing at being radical. This desire to vicariously experi-


Chapter Three

was purchased, which died within two days and again had to be replaced. In this bizarre anecdote of an artist braving ridiculously unnecessary dangers, not to mention sacrific-


ing the life of several innocent goats, for the sake of painting


and even braved death for their art. Some actors, for ex-

a picture, we sense something of the dedication that artists often feel towards their work. Artists have starved, fought, ample, submit their bodies to terrific alterations for the sake of a part. For American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) Christian Bale honed his flesh to what a skilled observer of the male


While sojourning in the Holy Land in 1854 William Holman

physique has called an ‘exquisitely cut-glass body’ (Reuter

Hunt painted one of the nineteenth century’s most fasci-

2000: 140), only to starve its skeletal remains for the haunt-

nating paintings: The Scapegoat (1855). The picture shows a

ing The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004). But the artist who

vicious-looking goat on the desolate shores of the Dead Sea.

most clearly puts his body in jeopardy today is undoubtedly

It is based on an image found in Leviticus, where, as Hunt

the performance artist or body artist, who will often put his

wrote to his friend John Everett Millais, ‘you will read an ac-

physical well-being on the line for the sake of art.

count of the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, bearing all the sins of the children of Israel, which, of course, was insti-

A Body of Art

tuted as a type of Christ’ (Amor 1989: 125). Hunt had bought

Performance art is difficult to define. It seems to be so wide

a white goat to serve as his model for the painting. Led by

a concept, and so often draws on materials and techniques

a group of Arabs, Hunt set out into the wilderness, braving

that are usually considered kinds of art in themselves (such

desolation and the lurking presence of armed brigands (not

as video, painting, film, theatre, poetry, and many others)

to mention the artist at one point sinking into a pit of slime

that it cannot be defined. In fact, if we consult surveys of

and nearly perishing), until he found a suitable spot on the

performance art or of the related topic of body art, such

shores of the Dead Sea that proved a suitable scene for the

books rarely offer insight into what is the specific nature of

picture. Every morning, Hunt would venture out to the shores

performance art. In a classic survey, RoseLee Goldberg claims

of the ‘pestilential lake’ (o.c. 128), set up his easel and paint

that ‘by its very nature, performance art defies precise or easy

while the armed enemy looming in the hills stared at him in

definition beyond the simple declaration that it is live art by

baffled amazement. In the end, the Arab soldiers accompany-

artists’ (Goldberg 2001: 9). In the introduction to her book she

ing him wanted to return and Hunt had to finish the painting

suggests that ‘tribal ritual, medieval passion play, Renais-

in Jerusalem, by which time the goat had died and a new one

sance spectacle or the “soirées” arranged by artists in the



1920s in their Paris studios’ are all examples of performance

performance art; and he is certainly not the only critic to do

art (o.c. 8). But Goldberg’s description is too general and

so. But there is really a marked difference between the two.

wildly inaccurate, for I would claim that the medieval pas-

In the case of Oppenheim’s piece, for instance, one should

sion play is an example of the theatre and that a tribal ritual

wonder how two photographs could constitute a performance.

is not even art at all but, as is clear from the description, an

They document the results of an action on Oppenheim’s part

example of ritual. It would seem that with performance art

that may or may not have been a performance depending on

things are very much as they are with pornography: we all

whether the exposure to sunburn was in itself a public event

know what it is, especially when we see it, but don’t ask us

(a performance) or something Oppenheim engaged in in pri-

to define it. Such an approach, however, will not do. We can-

vate for the sole purpose of creating the photographs, which

not engage in any kind of profitable discussion of anything if

are then the actual works of art (getting sunburnt would then

we do not have clearly defined terms. So we will have to en-

be the preparation for the creation of the work, much like

deavour to find a more satisfying description of what makes

a painter buying tubes of paint, grinding pigment to make

performance art a specific form of art that is distinct from

paint, or preparing a canvas). In the latter case, Reading Posi-

the other arts. Since performance art was still in its infancy

tion would be a work of photographic art, not performance

when Langer wrote Feeling and Form that book does not offer

art, and should be judged as such. So Lucie-Smith’s descrip-

a discussion of the primary illusion created in performance.

tion is a muddle, but not an uncommon one in writing on

Our first task should therefore be to try and define this pri-

body and performance art.

mary illusion so that we may understand what happens in a

In her classic 1974 essay on body art Lea Vergine offers an

performance. Once we have insight in the primary illusion of

interesting clue towards the distinction between body art and

performance art we will also be able to argue why some kinds

performance art. She observes that in body art the body ‘is

of performance art are successful and others not.

being used as an art language’ (Vergine 2000: 7). Body art is

First, we shall have to distinguish between body art and

art in which the body is crucially and actually involved: the

performance art. The two are often discussed together, and

body itself becomes an art language. Body art happens to or

both categories do seem to flow naturally into each other.

with the body or intrinsically concerns the body. It has the

Consider Edward Lucie-Smith’s comment on Dennis Op-

body physical as its locus of expression: what is relevant in

penheim’s Reading Position (1970), a work that ‘consists of

such art is expressed through or impressed upon the body.

two photographs which record the effects of sunburn on the

As Tracey Warr has noted, in body art the body is ‘used not

artist’s own torso – part of it sheltered by an open book, and

simply as the “content” of the work, but also as canvas, brush,

part left exposed. This kind of expression is often classified as

frame and platform’ (Warr 2000: 11). In The Artist’s Body (2000)

body art or performance art’ (Lucie-Smith 2001: 159). Lucie-

Amelia Jones offers an overview of body art that considers

Smith clearly suggests an equivalence between body art and

‘the histrionically virile action painting body’ of Jackson Pol-



lock a crucial point of reference for body art (Jones 2000: 21,

achieve a performance in a way similar to the agency of the

23). After action painting the history of body art is taken to

body in achieving a painting: the body is, so to speak, the tool

include the ‘strategic banality’ (o.c. 26) of everyday gestures

required to create the actual work of art. For instance, when

used in the dance of Merce Cunningham or the Judson Dance

Dutch artist Wim T. Schippers emptied a bottle of lemonade

Theater; a 1962 Happening in which ‘Wolf Vostell instructed

into the ocean he was clearly performing a performance.

the audience to board a city bus, ride around Paris and take

But this performance was not body art: the artist’s body was

note of their aural and visual experiences’ (o.c. 28); Laurie

not intrinsically relevant to the proceedings, except as the

Anderson’s ‘large scale theatrical productions performed at

necessary agent for emptying the bottle of lemonade. The

large-capacity venues’ (o.c. 32); Yves Klein’s Anthropometries;

performance was not about the body physical but about an

the mechanical body extensions of Stelarc; the photographs

action undertaken by the artist as a person. The locus of sig-

of Cindy Sherman; Piero Manzoni’s canned Merda d’artista

nificance in this performance was not the body physical but

(1961); Duchamp’s masquerading as Rrose Sélavy; Niki de

the action itself. So a work can be performance art regardless

Saint-Phalle’s ‘bleeding’ Tir à Volonté-paintings; Warhol’s ‘piss’

of whether it is also body art. What seems to be crucial to

or Oxidation Paintings (1978); Marcel Duchamp’s small Paysage

performance art is the spectacle of action. Performance art

fautif (1946) which was in 1989 revealed to consist of semen

would then be a work of art in which taking action is itself

on black satin; the work of the Viennese Actionists; and even

presented as the work of art. In this sense it is related to Han-

‘the antics of the Spice Girls’ (o.c. 32). But if body art covers

nah Arendt’s notion of action. The creation of artefacts such

such a diverse range of artistic practices then body art as a

as works of art is what Arendt calls “work”. In “action,” on the

term becomes merely descriptive and has very little, if any,

other hand, no final product is created. The clearest example

critical power. Body art sounds like a kind of art (like paint-

of action is politics, where people act for the common good

ing or sculpture) but it is really just a genre within the arts.

but where every act (a law or “act” passed, a decision made,

Hence, we may assume that much performance art will also

a stand taken) can always be undone or overturned by future

be a kind of body art because it usually presupposes the use

acts. In this sense, action is open-ended: its results are never

of the body. But that is all the insight to be gleaned from such

certain and always temporary. If one sets out to act, one nev-

a general approach. After all, most art, even writing, presup-

er knows where one is going to end up.

poses the use of the body.

But performance art is not identical with action. There are

I would suggest that not all performance art is body art in

two reasons for this. First, performance art may leave behind

the sense described here. Not all performance art involves

a final object as end result, be it an artefact created in the

the body in its physicality. Sometimes the body is merely the

performance, some relic of the performance (as when Her-

agent that performs an action which is the actual focus of

mann Nitsch exhibits the paint-splattered and bloodstained

the performance. In this sense the body is sometimes used to

robes he wore during his performances), or a photographic


or other audio-visual record of the performance which may

perceived as politically charged acts of resistance, which

come to substitute for the actual performance in exhibitions.

makes them eligible as examples of actual political action. In

Second, insofar as it is art, performance art is not action as

Happenings the line between art and reality, between action

such, but the illusion of action. This becomes especially clear

and illusion, becomes blurred and our definitions flounder.

if we consider that performance art is usually limited in time.


It starts and it ends and in that sense it is not open-ended:

From Performance to Concept

when one starts a performance one has some idea of where

Trying to define performance art in terms of action seems

one is going and where one wants to end up. This means that

logical but has proved to be a conceptual dead end. So we

the performance is scripted, or at least outlined, and that it is

must try and find a better definition. But before we attempt a

not in its overall structure improvised or spontaneous (which

more satisfactory definition of performance art we might do

really simply means that there must be some kind of com-

well to dwell awhile on the reasons why the present defini-

manding form at work). All improvisation that does occur

tion of performance as action is insufficient. To do this we

must be framed within a pre-established pattern that should

might approach the problem from a different vantage point.

at least be known to all the participants involved in the per-

As we said, a performance must have some element of pre-

formance. Therefore a performance is never open-ended in

meditation to be art: there must be commanding form. But

the sense that (political) action is: it has a form and the act

from this an interesting issue emerges. Suppose that an art-

of performing is the presentation or elaboration of this form.

ist has planned a performance and sends out invitations to

But this description of performance art immediately raises

artworld people to be present at the performance. For the

several grave problems. For we might legitimately ask what it

benefit of the press and other attendants a brief statement

is about performance art that makes it an illusion of action?

has been prepared in which the artist outlines what he will

How can we distinguish between action per se (in the sense

do and what will be its meaning. An interesting way to deter-

of Arendt) and an illusion of action? If performance art is art,

mine the artistic value of the performance might be to ask if

it must have some formal quality that makes it so. Clearly,

the actual performance will add anything of an aesthetic nature

our definition of performance art as the illusion of action is

to the brief outline presented in prose. If the actual perfor-

not sufficiently specific and soon becomes a conceptual mud-

mance does indeed not add anything of an aesthetic nature

dle because it is too difficult to determine when an action

to the work (which means that it really does not matter very

should be perceived as actual or illusory. This issue becomes

much whether you are actually present at the performance

especially vexing in relation to a kind of performance art that

to grasp its meaning and intent), we might judge the per-

was particularly popular in the late 1960s, the Happening.

formance non-artistic, or at least failed or bad art. If the full

As Allan Kaprow pointed out, ‘a Happening cannot be repro-

import of the performance can be grasped in a set of instruc-

duced’ (Jones 2000: 28). In this way Happenings were often

tions or a detailed description to which the actual perfor-



mance as event has little or nothing to add, the work would

definition about ideas and not about form. It is very facile to

seem to be merely discursive: the performance-as-event has

place an object (which can then be called a “ready-made,” as

no aesthetic value in itself and simply serves as a vehicle for

if such renaming of everyday objects magically turns them

an idea or an argument that remains just as valid in an es-

into something other than what they are) in a museum and

say or any other discursive presentation. In fact, the value of

then elaborate on the many critical or political meanings that

the work seems to lie in the description and not at all in the

are attached to it.

action itself. When this redundancy of the performance-as-

But we must ask ourselves, after having read an essay about

event occurs, we might say that the performance is not art

the meanings of a certain conceptual artist’s work, if it is

but illustration.

really necessary to our understanding of the work to actu-

This approach to the problem of the artistic stature of per-

ally go to the museum and see with our own eyes the objects

formance art opens interesting perspectives on other fields

displayed as the carriers of such lofty meanings and radi-

of controversy in recent art, such as the doctorate in the arts.

cal sentiments. I dare suggest that a urinal, regardless of its

As we saw in the previous chapter, several academies and

geographical location, is still very much a urinal after such

universities now offer PhD programmes in art. Such pro-

meanings have been attached to it and that Duchamp’s ac-

grammes usually require the artist to create a work with an

tual urinal as installed in a museum has very little to add

accompanying treatise on the work’s meanings and the cre-

to the idea of Duchamp’s urinal as installed in a museum. So the

ative process involved. This sets the stage for much bad art,

urinal is probably not very great art, although we must grant

for any work of art worth its salt should be able to communi-

that Duchamp, being the first to create such ready-mades, did

cate with its audience in a relevant way without the require-

make a radical gesture and was too intelligent an artist not to

ment of the previous perusal of a theoretical manual. If art

be aware of the ironies and conceptual complexities involved

needs theory to make itself understood, the artist has simply

in it. It is mostly his followers who are flukes. This does not

failed to make a successful work of art. Much such work

mean that the ideas at work behind conceptual art cannot in

tries to redeem itself by being presented as a form of “artis-

themselves be legitimate and interesting. Much conceptual

tic research”. But this, we claimed, is bad faith. Not because

art raises very interesting questions. But the nature of the

artistic research does not exist, but because all good artists

questions or their tentative answers is not in any way en-

do their research in their work. The work is the research, not

hanced by calling them art. A question is not a work of art.

the commentary. David Hockney once mentioned ‘a wonder-

And a non-aesthetic object does not become art because a

ful quote of Picasso’s, which I keep referring to, where he

question is attached to it. It simply gives the whole operation

says he never made a painting as a work of art; it was always

some artistic cachet. In fact, it now becomes clear that much

research’ (Weschler 2008: 61). From this perspective we can

performance art and conceptual art, in setting forth critical

also take a fresh look at conceptual art, which is almost by

statements about the world and the objects in it, are much



nearer to what Arendt called action than to art. People who

seen, for a brief period of time, as a counter-force to the com-

do performances or who raise interesting questions through

mercialisation of the art market: here, at last, were works of

conceptual art do something more akin to politics, journal-

art that could not be bought or sold. But the artworld cynics

ism, and civil action than to art.

soon changed that: if you can’t sell the work, market the at-

The political component of performance art, its breaking of

titude. Hence the introduction of a new cultural currency: the

taboos and challenging of social norms, can also be seen as

avant-garde identity rather than the avant-garde work of art.

another way in which the artworld has tried to regain the al-

Finally, the link between performance art and political action

lure of avant-gardism after it had fashionably declared avant-

becomes especially salient if we keep in mind that the rise of

gardes dead: by subscribing to supposedly radical political,

performance art and conceptual art was closely linked to the

social, or sexual ideas they substitute an avant-garde of the

rise of issue-based and identity art in the 1970s and 1980s.

political and the sexual for an avant-garde of the formal or

In all these kinds of art content matters more than form

the aesthetic. The mechanism at work in the sudden popu-

and the content is often overtly political. In this respect, Lea

larity of street art is also at work in the radical posturing of

Vergine’s early theoretical statement is especially instructive

performance art and its politically charged discourse. Thus,

when it claims that performance and body artists ‘want an

street art and performance art both function along similar

intimate acquaintance with all of the possibilities of self-

lines: they provide the artworld with a new sense of hip

knowledge that can stem from the body and the investigation

avant-gardism, a trendy with-it attitude that recreates the

of the body. The body is stripped bare in an extreme attempt

exclusive sense of an inner circle that was once generated

to acquire the right to a rebirth back into the world. Most of

through formal aesthetic experiments within the actual work

the time, the experiences we are dealing with are authentic,

of art. The result is an artworld that is not really interested

and they are consequently cruel and painful. Those who are

in art anymore but in a politics of the personal. And it might

in pain will tell you that they have the right to be taken seriously.

certainly be true that the personal is the political (for every-

These artists do not “take a long look at life,” and their forms

thing political has repercussions for the way we live our per-

of expression are not genteel. They make no a priori exclu-

sonal lives), but art is not politics. Even politically engaged art

sions and in most of them suffering is not transformed into

is not politics (at worst it is propaganda). And politics, apart

mysticism. This is particularly true when they are involved in

from not being art, cares very little about art to begin with,

the investigation of our infirmities and the monstrous organi-

unless when art can serve political purposes (by becoming

sation of the real. It’s a question of facing up to death through

propaganda) or offers an opportunity to sound moral alarms

life, rummaging around in the under and seamy sides of life,

that will generate votes (as in the culture wars). What is es-

bringing to light the secret and the hidden’ (Vergine 2000: 8-9).

pecially ironic about this evolution within the artworld is the

This passage shows how the rhetoric of victimhood was in-

fact that performance art, along with land art, was actually

troduced into discussions of performance and issue-based art


almost from the start. The italics in the passage are Vergine’s

death, since the vomit would have no place to go. And should

and they stress the inalienable right of the victim to be taken

any one of us vomit, we might trigger him to do likewise”’

seriously, even when she is not creating any artistic form but

(Warr 2000: 104). From this description it is clear that to wit-

simply acting out her victimhood. It is surely no coincidence

ness McCarthy’s performance is a perplexing experience. To

that much issue-based art subsequently took the form of

act in such a provocative and disgusting way clearly affects

performances, as in the work of such feminist luminaries

the audience. Who would not become nauseous while watch-

as Karen Finley or the self-dramatisations of Bob Flanagan.

ing such a spectacle? But the question is of course why this

As Amelia Jones breathlessly points out, the ‘leaky bodies’

performance should be a work of art. Similar gross acts are

of Ron Athey, Gina Pane, and Orlan ‘violently recorporealise

perpetrated in such pseudo-reality television shows as Jack-

the subjects of culture who spew, shit, piss and vomit their

ass and Dirty Sanchez, and yet nobody has made claims for

woundedness (as female, gay, sick)’ (Jones 2000: 33). But is

the superior artistic quality of such shows. So there must be

there artistic achievement or aesthetic merit in displaying

something about McCarthy’s performance that sets it apart

one’s woundedness?

from mere provocation. As we saw earlier, the presence of all kinds of “subversive or critical meanings” hardly qualifies


Engaging the Audience

as such a difference, for we might well argue that any act of

We must now try again to find the primary illusion created

gross indecency, by virtue of its offensive nature, challenges

in performance art. Several classic instances of performance

established moral codes and should therefore be considered

art offer clues towards such a definition. Our first exhibit is

of artistic merit. And yet such acts, when perpetrated in pub-

a description of Paul McCarthy’s Hot Dog (1974), one of the

lic without prior consent of government officials, are usually

artist’s ‘earliest performances enacting masochistic culinary

condemned as indecent exposure and not celebrated as ma-

rituals. McCarthy stripped and shaved his body in front of a

jor feats of artistic achievement.

small group of friends in his basement studio. Artist Barbara

Let us look at two further examples. Gina Pane’s seminal

Smith, present at the event, reported: “He [then] stuffs his

performance Le Lait Chaud (1972) showed the artist cutting

penis into a hotdog bun and tapes it on, then smears his ass

herself with a razor blade. Pane herself describes what hap-

with mustard... He approaches the tables and sits nearby,

pened: ‘Suddenly I turned to face my public and approached

drinking ketchup and stuffing his mouth with hot dogs...

the razor blade to my face. The tension was explosive and

Binding his head with gauze and adding more hot dogs, he

broke when I cut my face on either cheek. They yelled “No,

finally tapes his bulging mouth closed so that the protruding

no, not the face, no!” So I touched an essential problem – the

mouth looks like a snout... He stands alone struggling with

aestheticism in every person. The face is taboo, it’s the core

himself, trying to prevent his own retching. It is apparent that

of human aesthetics’ (o.c. 121). A more extreme form of au-

he is about to vomit... Should he vomit he might choke to

tomutilation is performed in the “performance-surgery” of



French artist Orlan. Tracey Warr describes such an operation

art, where audience response and even audience participa-

as it was broadcast live to fifteen sites worldwide: ‘Specta-

tion are often made part of the work itself. To clarify this

tors around the world could ask the artist questions both

we might compare performance art with the theatrical arts,

before and during the operation, to which she responded as

where the presence of an audience is also highly desirable (if

the procedure permitted. Elaborately staging the events with

only to prevent the act of performing a play from being a pro-

colourful drapery, costumes created by famous designers,

foundly depressing experience for the actors involved). But

and extra personnel to translate into English and sign for the

in theatre, as in dance, the fictional space of the work is al-

deaf, Orlan transformed the operating theatre into her studio,

ways demarcated from the space of the audience. Langer has

while her operation provided the material for the production

written incisively about this feature, especially in relation to

of film, video, photographs and objects to be exhibited later.

dance. Langer suggests that ‘all dance motion is gesture [...].

The operation was performed by a feminist plastic surgeon,

Gesture is the basic abstraction whereby the dance illusion is

Dr Marjorie Cramer, who inserted implants above Orlan’s

made and organised’ (FF 174). But gesture is not gesticulation.

eyes and in her cheeks and chin. The artist was conscious but

‘Gesticulation, as part of our actual behaviour, is not art. It is

locally anaesthetised, and it is therefore the spectator who

simply vital movement’ (FF 175). Gesticulation, bodily move-

suffers as a result of the discomfort produced by images of

ments brought about by the hustle and bustle of daily exis-

the operation. The artist retains ultimate (conscious) control

tence, is not art. It is a symptom of our being actively alive in

of the process of her facial remoulding and thus the repre-

the world. ‘Virtual gestures,’ on the other hand, namely the

sentation of her (female) face and body in art’ (o.c. 185). The

gestures created in the illusion of dance, ‘are symbols of will.

case of Orlan is especially instructive. It is clearly a perfor-

The spontaneous gestic character of dance motions is illu-

mance in the sense that it is elaborately staged as an event

sory, and the vital force they express is illusory; the “powers”

that is limited in time. It produces a series of artefacts com-

(i.e. centers of vital force) in dance are created beings – cre-

memorating the event. By having it performed by a feminist

ated by the semblance of gesture’ (FF 175). The dance turns

surgeon, the performance raises (admittedly rather trite and

gesture into fiction, an illusion. ‘The primary illusion of dance

unexciting) political issues. And by remoulding a woman’s

is a virtual realm of Power – not actual, physically exerted

face it confronts issues of canons of beauty and how ideas of

power, but appearances of influence and agency created by

the body beautiful are projected onto women’s bodies.

virtual gesture. In watching a collective dance – say, an ar-

But the really salient issue which is present in all three cases

tistically successful ballet – one does not see people running

discussed, is the issue of audience involvement and audience

around; one sees the dance driving this way, drawn that way,

response. Obviously, all art addresses an audience. But a paint-

gathering here, spreading there – fleeing, resting, rising, and

ing, a film, a sculpture, or a novel is offered the audience as a

so forth; and all the motion seems to spring from powers be-

finished product. This is not usually the case in performance

yond the performers. In a pas de deux the two dancers appear



to magnetise each other; the relation between them is more

magnetising the dancers, is not coextensive with the space

than a spatial one, it is a relation of forces; but the forces they

of the audience. The dance illusion is given the audience as a

exercise, that seem to be as physical as those which orient

spectacle, an illusory world, to look at. In this, it differs from

the compass needle toward its pole, really do not exist physi-

sculpture and architecture. As Langer notes, sculpture often

cally at all. They are dance forces, virtual powers’ (FF 175-176).

kindles in people a desire to touch it because ‘volume is real-

But these virtual powers immediately generate another effect

ly given originally to touch, [...] and the business of sculpture

which is crucial to their success. ‘Every dancer sees the dance

is to translate its data into entirely visual terms, i.e. to make

sufficiently to let his imagination grasp it as a whole; and

tactual space visible’ (FF 89-90). With architecture, we actually

with his own body-feeling he understands the gestic forms

inhabit its ethnic domain. This does not diminish the fact

that are its interwoven, basic elements. He cannot see his

that such virtual spaces are given primarily to our perception,

own form as such, but he knows his appearance – the lines

but it does mean that the self-contained world created in

described by his body are implied in the shifts of his vision,

these arts functions in a way different from the field of Power

even if he is dancing alone, and are guaranteed but the rhyth-

in dance gestures. With dance, as with the theatre, the spec-

mic play of his muscles, the freedom with which his impuls-

tator is usually kept at a further distance from the work than

es spend themselves in complete and intended movements.

in sculpture or architecture.

He sees the world in which his body dances, and that is the

I believe that Langer’s notion of a magnetic field of powers

primary illusion of his work; in this closed realm he develops

between dancers in a dance is a crucial clue to the primary

his ideas’ (FF 197). This last observation is crucial: the dance

illusion of performance art, where the audience itself be-

creates a closed realm, a world on its own. ‘The dance cre-

comes involved in the force-field created in the work. It is the

ates an image of nameless and even bodiless Powers filling a

incorporation of audience response or participation into the

complete, autonomous realm, a “world”’ (FF 190). ‘The dance,

work rather than the action-like nature of the event that is

or dancers,’ Langer continues, ‘must transform the stage for

crucial to the primary illusion of performance art (which sub-

the audience as well as for themselves into an autonomous,

sequently may or may not also be body art, depending on the

complete, virtual realm, and all motions into a play of visible

role of the body physical in the proceedings). Performance

forces in unbroken, virtual time’ (FF 204). This recalls, to some

art can never be complete as a work without the audience.

extent, the primary illusion of the visual arts, the creation

We must understand this well. As we said before, all art re-

of virtual space in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Es-

quires an audience. But most art is finished as a work before

pecially the way sculpture inhabits and organises the empty

the audience becomes involved. In temporal terms, the work

space around it seems to be akin to the way the realm of

of art is usually completed before the audience comes in (in

Power of dance generates a world of its own. This means that

the case of the theatre or the dance, where the individual

the space of the world of the dance, its virtual field of powers

performance only starts when the audience is present in the



theatre, the work was actually completed during rehearsals,

form of art that differs crucially from all other forms of art:

and what is presented to the audience is the accomplished

it breaks open its virtual world to include the audience and

living symbol of the play or the dance as it was conceived,

in that sense becomes somehow world-encompassing. Since

achieved, and perfected through rehearsal: the play or the

performance art emerged as a full-fledged art form in the

dance that the audience will see is already finished in the

1960s, when it was charged with political and emancipatory

minds and bodies of the performers, who are ready to perform

intentions, such breaking-open towards the world should

it again, and again, and again, usually without much adjust-

not surprise us. By encompassing the audience, and hence

ment of the original form). In performance art the work cannot

the entire phenomenologically present environment, perfor-

be complete before the audience comes in. As a matter of fact,

mance art generates a sense of claustrophobia that is crucial

the audience becomes instrumental in the completion of the

to its success: the magnetic force-field that ties dancers in a

work because its response to or participation in it is crucial to

pas de deux here includes the audience, which is given a sense

the accomplishment of the work. Clearly, McCarthy’s Hot Dog

of being locked in. To be present at a performance is to have

includes the audience response (the felt experience of nausea

the feeling that one cannot get away. One is part of the event.

and the simultaneous knowledge that to give way to nausea

This means that it is far more difficult for the spectator to

might endanger the artist) as part of the work. Take away the

remain a disinterested spectator. Because one is involved in

tension between the performer and his audience and there is

the force-field, one is drawn almost physically into the per-

simply no work, only the masochistic shenanigans of a man

formance. This dynamic is especially clear in Barbara Smith’s

involved in a highly inventive form of sexual adventurous-

response to McCarthy’s Hot Dog: it is as if the audience is tak-

ness. The acts performed by McCarthy might still be mean-

en hostage by the work and is made to feel McCarthy’s nausea

ingful or (sexually, masochistically) exciting to the artist as a

instead of simply watching it. Obviously, the examples we

private person, but they would no longer be art (although we

have used here are extreme forms of performance and much

should allow for the fact that the presence of a camera docu-

performance art is far less confrontational or aggressive

menting the solitary performance might substitute for an

towards the audience. But even in more demure cases the

audience). Similarly, what would be the use of Gina Pane cut-

audience becomes directly involved because the performance

ting her face if there were no audience present to be shocked

engages both its response and, it should by now be clear, its

by her action? In performance the audience becomes part of

reflection. Given the politically charged nature of much per-

the fabric of the work itself.

formance art, which is further illustrated in its popularity

We can now endeavour a new definition of performance art. I

among artists engaged in issue-based art, the performance

suggest that the primary illusion created in performance art

often has the specific goal of triggering a political or critical

is the illusion of action within a virtual realm of power that

insight in the audience. It wants to make the audience aware

includes both the performer and the audience. In this, it is a

of some injustice. But in a good performance, this triggering



of insight in the audience is part of the fabric of the work (as

merely an illusion: the real world is still out there, beyond the

it would also be in conceptual art).

boundaries of the virtual realm of the performance. But the

But the political charge of much performance art also circles

effect of this coup is that the experience of watching a per-

back to action in the sense of Arendt. Therefore our defini-

formance becomes part of the performance itself. Hence a

tion once again states that the primary illusion created in

performance is a kind of art in which consciousness-raising

performance art is an illusion of action. This is the very aspect

can become an integral part of the virtual world because it is

that we earlier identified as profoundly problematic: it lead

integrated into the artistic fabric.

us straight into a conceptual muddle. But I believe we can

It should be clear that our definition of the primary illusion

evade the muddle this time because we situate the illusion

of performance art does not solve all our problems. But the

of action within a virtual realm of power that includes both

primary illusion does offer us a clue as to what performance

performer(s) and audience. This addition is crucial. Our ear-

art is good art. In fact, insofar as much performance art takes

lier problems with the illusion of action as a definition of the

on a decidedly discursive form by letting ideological or po-

primary illusion of performance art stemmed mainly from

litical intentions prevail over formal concerns, an unusually

the fact that it was impossible to determine whether any

high degree of performance art may be rather mediocre. It

action was real or illusory. But if we situate the illusion of ac-

is surely the challenge of the performance artist to create

tion within a power-field that is itself already a virtual world

a form that does something considerably more ambitious

on its own, this problem disappears: all action performed in

than provoke a visceral reaction in the audience (as in the

the performance pertains not to the real world, but only to

nausea experienced while watching Hot Dog), denounce some

the virtual world created in the work. The audience present

social injustice (as in the work of Karen Finley), or engage

at a performance is never really an audience and is never re-

in an exhibitionism of the ailing body (as in the work of Bob

ally in front of the stage: it is on the stage, part of the action,

Flanagan). All the objections against performance and con-

and part of the virtual realm created. In this sense we might

ceptual art that were raised earlier remain valid now that we

say that performance art has something of the ideal, which

have determined the primary illusion of the performance.

was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, of turning one’s life

But the primary illusion should help us explain why so much

into a work of art. By creating a virtual realm that encom-

performance art is failed art, bad art, or maybe not even art

passes a realm that is not usually supposed to be part of the

at all. It is one thing to say that performance art includes the

virtual world, namely the realm of the spectator, the artist

audience in its primary illusion, it is another thing to say that

is actually performing a coup on the world: he obliterates

any work that includes the audience in its primary illusion

the world (insofar as it is phenomenologically present to the

is therefore by definition good (performance) art. It offers us

performers and the audience) by including it in his action. So

a criterion for distinguishing true works of performance art

the real and the fictional are conflated. But this is obviously

from works that are falsely seen as performance art. For in-


stance, it might be argued that works such as Chris Burden’s

single most notorious piece of performance art in which the

Oh, Dracula (1974), which had the artist sleep in a chrysalis-

artist put her own life in jeopardy was Marina Abramovic’s

like sheet attached to the wall of the museum, or a Peter

Rhythm 0 (1974) in which ‘Abramovic stood by a table and of-

Greenaway exhibit of a naked woman (The Physical Self, 1991)

fered herself passively to spectators, who could do what they

really belong in a survey of sculpture rather than one of per-

liked with a range of objects and her body. A text on the wall

formance art. To the extent that there is no explicit illusion of

read, “There are seventy-two objects on the table that can be

action in these works and that they are primarily presented

used on me as desired. I am the object.” The objects included

as exhibits rather than audience-inclusive events, such works

a gun, a bullet, a saw, an axe, a fork, a comb, a whip, lipstick,

seem to be extreme cases of sculpture.

a bottle of perfume, paint, knives, matches, a feather, a rose, a candle, water, chains, nails, needles, scissors, honey, grapes,


Lethal Objections

plaster, sulphur and olive oil. By the end of the performance

As noted before, the boundary between performance art and

all her clothes had been sliced off her body with razor blades,

body art is often blurred. This is especially the case in the

she had been cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, crowned with

most sensational, and often the most effective, kind of per-

thorns and had had the loaded gun pressed against her head.

formance art, namely the performance in which the body is

After six hours the performance was halted by concerned

shown to accomplish immense feats of physical endurance,

spectators’ (Warr 2000: 125).

often to the point of putting the artist’s physical well-being

Rhythm 0 is an extreme case of audience involvement in art

at risk. McCarthy’s Hot Dog and Pane’s Le Lait Chaud are clear

that develops ideas that can be traced back to Yoko Ono’s

examples of such performance art. But other and more noto-

Cut Piece (1964) and similar works in which the artist’s body

rious instances have become the topic of controversy. Chris

becomes the willing passive recipient of aggressive acts. It

Burden famously had a friend shoot him in the arm for Shoot

is a matter of dispute whether such performances are still

(1971), for Trans-fixed (1974) he was nailed to a car in the pos-

art. The inclusion of the audience in the virtual world of the

ture of the crucified Christ, and for the notorious Deadman

action is certainly taken to the limit in Abramovic’s piece

(1972) Burden himself explains that ‘at 8 pm I lay down on La

since it was up to members of the audience to determine

Cienega Boulevard and was covered completely with a canvas

when the performance was over; when, in other words, they

tarpaulin. Two 15-minute flares were placed near me to alert

themselves had had enough. Apart from that, the entire per-

cars. Just before the flares extinguished, a police car arrived. I

formance smacks of abject nihilism. The fact that a loaded

was arrested and booked for causing a false emergency to be

gun was held to Abramovic’s head seems to defy all reason:

reported. The trial took place in Beverly Hills. After three days

why would an artist put her life at risk simply to make some

of deliberations, the jury failed to reach a decision and the

point? Such nihilistic acts of self-destruction are usually the

judge dismissed the case’ (Hoffman 2007: 158). Perhaps the

preserve of suicide bombers or political or religious fanat-



ics who engage in self-immolation. There is no denying the

Or would he simply be deemed a fierce critic of a contentious

incredible force such extreme performances have for the

work of art? If Abramovic offers the means and the opportu-

people present. As Gina Pane remarked of Le Lait Chaud, ‘the

nity for her murder as an artistic event, an open invitation

tension was explosive,’ and we may be sure that it was even

to trigger-pulling, does that entitle me to pull that trigger?

more so for the people present at Rhythm 0. The question we

I doubt it. To the extent that killing Abramovic would have

are faced with is whether such tension has anything artistic

very real extra-artistic consequences in the real world (for

about it if it involves such reckless risk-taking. For there is a

one thing, it would certainly make prices for her works soar

very definite line that runs between Pane’s Le Lait Chaud on

in the art market) the entire event is decidedly not a work

the one hand and Deadman or Rhythm 0 on the other. Pane

of art. The fact that I hire someone to kill me does not make

is always in charge of the proceedings, as is Orlan when she

that hired killer innocent of murder in the eyes of the law (if

submits to surgery. But both Burden and Abramovic introduce

it did, the whole question of euthanasia would not cause so

an element of unpredictability by relinquishing control to

much legal and political debate). The fact that I send out invi-

coincidence or the wiles of other people. A person with mur-

tations to the act does not make it art. So it is clear that any

derous intent may well use the occasion of Rhythm 0 to act

performance that wants to include its audience in its risk-

upon his impulses. A driver passing Deadman may not notice

taking must first make sure that the audience is complicit

the flares and run over Burden. In both cases the question is

and knows exactly what it is in for. Ironically, this would

if both artists have not simply behaved in a grossly irrespon-

often spoil the shock value of the performance itself. But it

sible way rather than created a work of art. Also, the case of

need not. That prepping the audience is possible without

Deadman raises the question of the participation of people

destroying the thrill of risk was shown in Santiago Sierra’s

who are not willing members of the audience. If the hypo-

performance-slash-installation 300 Tons, created at the Kun-

thetical driver runs over Burden, has he not been made an

sthaus Bregenz in April 2004. Here is Sierra’s written concept

unwilling accomplice to murder/suicide? Does any innocent

for the event: ‘292 tons of concrete bricks were carried to the

passer-by deserve to be faced with the possible consequences

top floor of the Kunsthaus Bregenz and their weight distrib-

of Burden’s behaviour?

uted on temporary supports over the whole building. That

These are troubling questions and the fact that the works

will almost result, though with sufficient leeway, in the entire

themselves might be intended to raise and debate these

building collapsing due to the overload. For this reason the

questions hardly seems to redeem them as art. Suppose for

number of visitors present at any time may never be more

a moment that a person had actually pulled the trigger on

than 100, which represents an additional 8 tons’ (Schneider

Abramovic. How would the authorities have reacted to that?

2004: 13).

Would the trigger-puller be arrested? Charged with murder

The Kunsthaus Bregenz is designed to carry a maximum

or manslaughter (or woman-slaughter; or person-slaughter)?

weight of 300 tons. Above that limit (but, we may assume,


even approaching that limit from below) the building might

has anything resembling the stunning beauty of Serra’s metal

crack. So it is up to the visitor to decide if he or she wants to

constructions. If it does, I do not think this redeems the work

take the risk of hoisting inside his extra pounds of art fod-

as art (a beautiful stupid risk is still a stupid risk), but if it

der that will bring the entire construction down, causing all

does not, then all we are left with is the thrill. And the idea

present to die a gloriously artistic death. I strongly feel that,

behind this thrill, including its possible critical meanings, is

in a free world, every person has the right to behave the way

again sufficiently expressed in the written concept. To actu-

they like, no matter how stupid, as long as they don’t hurt

ally visit it would be carelessness (and just imagine making it

anybody. But this is very stupid behaviour. And I dare sug-

a family outing and losing both one’s parents in the event).

gest that those engaging in it are fooling themselves no end


if they think that what they are doing is artistic or artistically

The Meating of Porn and Art on a Dissecting Table

relevant. Again, the question we must ask ourselves is if the

When feats of physical endurance become enmeshed with is-

thrill of risk and of possible death makes for good art. Or, to

sues of the sexual body, the question of pornography rears it

state it another way, would it not be possible to create the

naughty head. Just like much performance art, pornographic

thrill of risk without any actual risk involved; which means:

films (and we shall restrict ourselves primarily to porno-

to create an illusion of risk, which would immediately take

graphic films, although it will become instantly clear that the

us back into the realm of art, where all realities are virtual.

argument we are about to make can easily be expanded to

Consider, for example, the imposing installations of Rich-

include erotic cabarets and stripping) offer feats of physical

ard Serra, huge constructions that loom ominously over the

endurance. Even tepidly mainstream porn films often require

viewer. Serra’s work is there to be looked at and to be experi-

performers to be contortionists: they must bend and stretch

enced. I find Serra’s work extremely successful, and part of its

their bodies to allow the camera maximum visibility. On top

success lies in the fact that it does not count upon the cheap

of that, they must be sexually active, perform sometimes

thrill of real risk to engage its audience. Serra makes us feel

challenging acts of sexual prowess, such as double penetra-

uncomfortable without putting our physical integrity at risk

tions, all the while trying to look glamorous and aroused.

(although, tragically, in the early 1970s one of his installations

That porn might be an Olympic discipline becomes especially

did collapse during construction, killing a worker; but this

clear if we look at a pornographic genre that has remark-

was a tragic accident, not something intended as a calculated

able affinities with performance and ritual: sadomasochistic

possibility). Also, Serra’s work not only deals with the per-

porn, which often includes such transgressive acts as fisting,

ceived threat of sublime sculpture, he is also concerned with

bondage, and urolagnia (it were these kinds of acts that were

issues of texture, choice of materials, architecture, and the

deemed unacceptably offensive in Robert Mapplethorpe’s

geography of space. I did not visit 300 Tons, nor would I feel

X Portfolio). Both in the performances of Marina Abramovic

inclined to, so I do not know if the sight of 292 tons of bricks

and Chris Burden and in the acrobatics of porn stars there is



a test of the body and its endurance. If Abramovic cuts her

supposed to become art when it is done in an “artistic con-

stomach with a razor or if Burden lets a friend shoot a bul-

text” (whatever that may be) but cannot be art, or at least not

let through his arm, they are submitting themselves to acts

as easily be regarded as art, if it takes place in a porn film. An

that are painful, potentially dangerous, and that require great

obvious answer would be that the two are different in kind.

endurance in the performer. The same can be said of porn

We might say that art tries to communicate, for want of a

performers. It requires considerable endurance to take anoth-

better word, deeper meanings or make critical comments on

er person’s fist or arm up the ass, submit to several forms of

certain topics. The meaning of the sex does not lie in the sex

sexual abuse, or endure the soiling of the body, both its skin

itself. This is different with pornography, which is really just

and its inside, with urine or other bodily secretions.

about instant gratification. But this difference rests on sev-

This risk-taking with the body is pushed to the limit in un-

eral unchallenged and profoundly problematic assumptions.

safe sex. In gay porn there is a vogue for what is called bare-

First, there is no reason to assume that art does not also offer

backing: performers who fuck without condoms, knowingly

instant gratification. If a work of art is beautiful, it can give

exposing themselves to the risk of contracting hiv/aids. The

us a jolt and instantly uplift our mood. Certain genres of film

odd thing is that we are apparently very willing to accept

that are usually associated with instant gratification, such as

death-defying performances by Burden or Abramovic as art,

horror films or the thriller, have practitioners who are highly

but when porn performers (or indeed any visitor of a kinky

regarded as artists, such as Alfred Hitchcock. The thrills and

sex club) engage in acrobatic sex without the protection of

shocks of these films, although integrated in a fabric of ex-

a condom this is regarded as unnecessary risk-taking and

quisite expressive form, could be considered instant gratifica-

as irresponsible behaviour (in fact, many people who prac-

tion and they are undeniably part of the reason we like to see

tice an extreme or dangerous sport take similar calculated

such films. Obviously, these films also do many other things

risks without incurring our moral disapprobation). But surely

beyond delivering effects and shocks, but it is an unwar-

Abramovic and Burden are putting their bodies’ well-being

ranted assumption to suggest that pornography by definition

equally at risk as the porn performers. And whatever mes-

does not also offer anything more in such a way.

sage these performances try to communicate could surely

But this defence of pornography is itself guilty of prejudice,

be communicated just as clearly and effectively without put-

for in making it we are assuming that the supposed instant

ting the body at risk. So there is no clear way in which porn

gratification of porn could not be valuable in itself and hence

is in any sense more “gratuitous” than extreme performance

not worthy of being considered art. This is odd. If a tragic

art: in both cases, performers willingly and knowingly take

novel or play makes us care for its characters and maybe

calculated risks with their own bodies in a spectacle. The

even shed tears because we are moved by their fate, the work

question we are facing is why such behaviour, and especially

is considered a success. If the pornographic film succeeds in

such extreme or risk-taking behaviour of a sexual nature, is

stimulating us to orgasm, it is also considered a success, but



of a rather vulgar kind. This is hypocrisy. We should not judge

films that have incorporated explicit sexual imagery. Patrice

porn on account of the fact that it is pornographic. That porn

Chéreau’s remarkable film Intimacy (2000) and Larry Clark’s

is not about telling complex psychological stories is hardly

unsettling and decidedly horny Ken Park (2002) are exceptions,

surprising. We should judge porn as a genre in itself and ap-

but usually such films turn out banal or fail both as works

ply the same standard that we apply to all other genres or all

of art and as works of pornography. They become sterile and

other arts: we should simply discriminate between good porn

unmoving. It would seem that porn is at its best when it is

and bad porn. And it is an undeniable fact that the ability to

allowed to be what it is and endeavours to excel at its usual

arouse sexual lust in the viewer is a sign that a pornographic


film is a success. But we should not be naive either. Of all the

What kind of art, then, is porn and what kinds of bodies are

possible effects a work of art can have on the human organ-

represented in it? Pornography is the art of the sexual body

ism, sexual arousal is surely among the easiest to achieve.

in motion: it creates symbols, forms expressive of the ec-

Mother Nature has kindly programmed us to react swiftly

static body. It might be objected that it is glib to suggest that

and with great dedication to almost any erotic stimulus. It

the naked bodies in pornographic films are “expressive of”

does not take much artistry to push the buttons of arousal.

something else which just happens to be the naked human

But then, many other effects such as laughter or emotional

body. This formulation seems to introduce a new kind of coy

involvement with a fictional character are almost just as eas-

prudery: it’s not really dicks and cunts, its “expressive of”

ily accomplished in a mediocre way, which accounts for the

arousal. And yet the formulation is necessary, for we should

many formulaic films and novels that are about. Such works,

never allow ourselves to forget that porn, like all art, is an

whether films, novels, pornographic films, or any other art,

illusion. It is, in fact, a performance in the truest sense of the

are simply mediocre art. But in porn as in any other art

word. The actors in such films do perform in the sense that

form there are outstanding works that deserve our serious

what they are showing us is not self-expressive or spontane-

consideration. And that means, among other things, to ac-

ous. The actors in the scenes do not usually play themselves,

knowledge that the success of any kind of erotic art depends

the scenes are scripted, and the performers do not usually

to a large extent on its ability to provoke in us the desired

have the choice as to which sexual acts to perform when and

response, which is arousal. As Kenneth Clark justly remarked

with whom. Commenting on her starring but sexually ex-

in his outstanding study of The Nude (1956), ‘no nude, how-

plicit role in Curt McDowell’s cult classic Thundercrack! (1975)

ever abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some

actress Marion Eaton says that she ‘used an actor’s technique

vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest

to portray sexuality as “erotic realism,” but kept a line there

shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false mor-

to prevent it from being my own personal masturbation. I

als’ (Clark 1960: 6). In fact, pornographic materials often fail if

created a bigger-than-life masturbation so that it would be

they try too hard to be “artistic,” as in many recent art-house

everybody’s masturbation’ (Stevenson 1996: 241). The porn



film is directed. The action in porn films is often filmed from

this at length. She claims that ‘pornography without obscen-

different angles, there are different takes, scenes are shot

ity is sad’ (Guilló et al. 2002: 80). Ovidie gives a very precise

several times over, the material is then edited and all kinds

definition of pornography as ‘the realistic representation

of effects are introduced, from lighting effects during filming

in film or video of non-simulated sexual acts’ (o.c. 78). So

to sound effects and dubbing on the edited scene. The fact

books and paintings or drawings are never pornographic for

that there is much bad porn and some good porn and that we

Ovidie, although photographs and performance art can be.

can very easily tell the difference (because so much bad porn

Furthermore, not all pornography is obscene, and not every-

is abysmally bad) suggests that it does take talent, or an eye

thing that is obscene is also pornographic. In fact, ‘obscenity

for the erotic, to be successful at making such films, that not

only begins when something upsets us emotionally’ (o.c. 79).

anybody can do it well and that some (a very few) people do it

This means that pornography, to be obscene, must have an

with considerable vision and dedication. The pornographic is

emotional impact on the viewer, who must be somewhat

in fact a very difficult genre, one of the most difficult, which

shaken by what he or she sees. This was not usually the case

probably explains why there is so little successful material

in the 1990s, when porn became more and more tailor-made

around (another obvious reason is that most “legitimate”

for a mainstream audience, with predictable and repetitive

directors with genuine talent tend to steer clear from mak-

action, clinical presentations, and professional actresses fak-

ing porn, leaving the field to the hacks and the cynics). So it

ing orgasms. The situation is similar in gay porn, where, as

is legitimate and necessary to say that the bodies in porno-

maverick gay porn director Joe Gage puts it, professional porn

graphic films are expressive of something else, even though

actors often ‘have that West-Hollywood-escort vibe that to

they are very explicitly present. The thing they are expressive

a large degree doesn’t interest me. Because with them, the

of is the body ecstatic: successful pornographic imagery is

meter is always running and they’re into it because they can

expressive of the felt experience of the human body in its full

do it, they’re not into it because they are compelled to do it’

sexual capacity and at its highest level of sensual alertness.

(Rodriguez 2007: 20). In such films, Ovidie explains, ‘there is

When its expressive illusion is successful, we are moved by

definitely the sexual act, but there is nothing because there is

the work and (usually) become aroused, although this is not a

only the sexual act, there is no sexual dimension. If you watch

necessary outcome: sometimes the sight of bodies in rest and

the thing, there is only the sex act itself’ (Guilló et al. 2002:

motion is so moving to watch that it transcends arousal.

80). Such pornography has lost its obscenity and therefore

To achieve this kind of expressiveness it is probably neces-

its power to shock, unsettle, or even arouse the viewer in an

sary to take pornography into the realm of the obscene. One

exciting or relevant way. This is one of the reasons why some

of the failings of much porn is its coldness, its clinical pre-

performers have tried to branch out into more challenging

sentation of body parts. French porn actress Ovidie, who is a

terrain. Virginie Despentes co-directed the film Baise-moi

vocal advocate for her chosen profession, has commented on

(2000) with porn star Coralie. And male French porn star HPG



(Hervé-Pierre Gustave) managed to attract the attention of

these first experiments, it would be two years before Bour-

an art-house audience with several short subjects, notably

don made porn again, after a chance meeting with director

Acteur X pour vous servir (2001). Even if we admit that these ef-

José Bénazéraf during a private screening of one of his films.

forts were not entirely successful, the very fact that they were

The director would put her in several of his films, notably La

being made is in itself interesting because its shows that the

Soubrette perverse (1974) and La Veuve lubrique (1975). Since

idea of pornography as a form of art is now quite accepted,

such films only included simulated sex, the experience was

especially among a younger generation of performers who

a disillusionment for Bourdon, who wanted to make porn to

see their work as more than simply a kind of videographed

further her sexual enjoyment. Her chance to do so came with


Frédéric Lansac’s classic Le Sexe qui parle (1975) and the highly

But this recent wave of art-porn consciousness was not the

successful Candice Candy (Pierre Unia, 1976).

first. Pornography became widespread in the wake of the sex-

In the span of about a year, Bourdon would appear in a host

ual revolution of the 1960s and many early performers and

of interesting sex and porn films, including Jean Rollin’s gor-

directors believed that their work was part of the revolution,

geous Lèvres de Sang (1976). Her sexual quest also took her to

part of the attempt to break down oppressive moral codes.

the furthest edges of sexuality. For Sylvia dans l’extase (1976)

Several early porn stars were on a mission, not just on a trip

she became the first French porn star to have sex with a dog.

down exploitation road. One of the best examples of a porn

She saw this scene as an ideological statement: ‘It is time,

star whose work was equally the expression of an ideologi-

dear cinephiles, to destroy the hypocrisy of loving animals

cal belief in sexual liberation was French porn legend Sylvia

without giving them the legitimate satisfactions of a real

Bourdon. When her memoir L’Amour est une fête (1976) was

relationship. But truth compels me to admit that I was royally

republished in 2001 Bourdon added a preface in which she

paid for this scene: but I did it with pleasure because it was

wrote that, for her, pornography, along with her many other

one of my fantasies made flesh’ (o.c. 82). She also became

sexual exploits, ‘was simply part of my exploration’ (Bourdon

the subject of Jean-François Davy’s documentary Exhibition 2

2001: 8). As a sexually liberated and adventurous woman,

(1976), which painted a rather one-sided portrait of her as a

Bourdon wanted to explore all the aspects of her sexuality.

sexually voracious obsessive with dangerous ideas border-

And as exhibitionism was part of her sexual character, por-

ing on the fascist. Davy had earlier made Exhibition (1975), a

nographic films were a logical venture. In 1972 an acquain-

fascinating and intelligent portrait-as-exposure of porn star

tance brought Bourdon into contact with porn pioneer Lasse

Claudine Beccarie. The film on Bourdon included scenes of

Braun, who made a set of three 8mm shorts with her, most

sadomasochistic torture and culminated in a dinner party

famously Cake Orgy (1972), in which a group of people have

where Bourdon first gorged herself on food and then sat on

sex with each other and six cakes on a beach (this short sub-

the table, shat, and ate her own excrement. When the film

ject also featured the future star Claudine Beccarie). After

was forbidden by the censor (and later released in a heavily



truncated form, purged of its scatological finale) Davy all but

ity of the performers or characters involved are portrayed

distanced himself from his star, whom he called ‘a pathologi-

as being profoundly sexual. In a porn film everything, even

cal case,’ something for which Bourdon has never forgiven

the most commonplace situations or persons, are occasions

the man whom she in 2001 still referred to as (in deliciously

for sexual adventures. There is nothing in porn that cannot

scatological French) ‘ce lâche et ignoble salopard, cet infâme in-

become sexual. Most kitchen appliances have by now been

dividu,’ a man who grovelled before authority in the hope of

called upon to perform sexual services upon some human

salvaging his investment rather than defend his work. She

orifice. Any kind of fabric, from black lace stockings through

calls the film her one regret in life (o.c. 9). In 1977, Bourdon

rubber masks and latex briefs, have lifted fetishists up to

quit the porn business because it had become repetitive

the highest transports of ecstasy. In pornography the whole

and unchallenging. Bourdon next opened a gallery for erotic

body becomes responsive to sexual impulses, no touch is

art where she hosted, among other things, artist Journiac’s

ever innocent of sexual meaning, and our sexual desires are

performance Action érotico-patriotique (1978), a ritual piece in

projected onto everything around us. The whole world is a

which Bourdon herself partook and that was documented in

sexual cornucopia. It is a world of plenty where pleasure, and

a rarely seen 8mm film (Gayet 2002). Clearly, Bourdon’s brief

people willing and able to administer it, are amply available.

but highly publicised involvement with pornography was

Every orgasm is a blast and all desires are fulfilled. In short,

first and foremost about achieving her own aims in life: a

the world as portrayed in pornography seems like an alto-

full development of her sexual experience. She expected the

gether more desirable world than the one in which we have

projects in which she became involved to rise to the occa-

to live out our everyday lives. But it is this all-over-field of

sion. When they failed to do so, the challenge was gone and

sexual responsiveness that is often singled out as the major

she quit the scene. What remains, is a body of work that is a

moral issue in porn. Especially feminist criticism of porn has

fascinating mixture of politics, pornography, art, and sheer

complained that women in porn are portrayed as objects for


sexual use and that their bodies are presented as automata to be used and abused at will. It is bootless to disagree with

Do Androids Wank to Electric Wet Dreams?

such an observation because it is an undeniable fact that

Now that we have agreed to take porn seriously as art we

much porn usually presents all bodies (and not just female

will have to explore more fully what we mean when we say

bodies, for there is also such a thing as gay porn and straight

that the image of felt life created in pornography is the rep-

porn in which dominant women are seen to objectify men)

resentation of the fully sexual body. I suggest that we take

as automata for sexual fulfilment. The body in porn is in-

this expression very literally for in much porn the body is

deed one huge erogenous zone that can be bent, stretched,

shown as entirely sexual: not just the sexual organs but the

and penetrated at will like an inflatable doll or a mechanical

entire surface of the body and in fact the entire personal-

bride. And instead of taking issue with this fact (for is it not



the very automaton-like quality of pornographic bodies that

there saw two androids of young boys who could write entire

makes them such a turn-on?) we should accept and applaud

sentences and which had first been exhibited in 1774.

it and try to understand its importance for the primary illu-

One of the most interesting characters in the history of the

sion of porn.

automaton or android was Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782),

A first way to reach such understanding takes us into the

who created several such inventions. In 1738 he exhibited

world of the mechanical body. Ken Russell’s film Gothic (1986),

his life-size Flute Player, who actually played the flute be-

an energetic and highly idiosyncratic recounting of the night

cause the mechanism Vaucanson had devised was a detailed

Mary Shelley allegedly conceived the story for her novel Fran-

imitation of human anatomy: ‘There was a mechanism to

kenstein (1818), is set in the Villa Diodati on the shores of lake

correspond to every muscle. [...] Inside the mouth was a

Léman near Geneva, where Lord Byron lived in exile with his

moveable metal tongue, which governed the air let through

personal physician and sometime lover Dr Polidori. Among

and created pauses. There were four levers to operate the

the many exotic and outrageous objects that people Byron’s

tongue and to modify the wind’ (o.c. 22-23). The only differ-

abode is a set of life-size mechanical dolls of women. One

ence between this automaton and a human flute player was

of these mechanical ladies plays the harpsichord when her

that the automaton never grew tired and could go on playing

mechanism is cranked up by a handle in the back, while an-

indefinitely. A year later, in 1739, Vaucanson improved upon

other more exotic looking specimen performs a rudimentary

his invention and diverted audiences with the automaton of

belly-dance. Such automata were very much en vogue in the

a figure that played a pipe and drum. But his most famous

eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In fact, in 1776 a

invention was a mechanical duck, also created in 1739 and

“Musical Lady” who played he harpsichord had been exhib-

subsequently included in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclo-

ited in London. It was the handiwork of the father and son

pédie as an example in the entry for “androïde” (o.c. 21). The

team of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droze. ‘As she played

mechanical duck was small in stature, but it was a great ac-

the five tunes in her repertoire,’ Gaby Wood notes of the

complishment because it actually ‘ate food out of the exhibi-

Musical Lady, ‘her eyes would move coyly from side to side,

tor’s hand, swallowed it, digested it, and excreted it, all before

and her bosom would heave lightly, as if she were breathing’

an audience. It became Vaucanson’s most famous creation;

(Wood 2002: xiv). The automaton in Russell’s film behaves in

without the shitting duck, Voltaire commented wryly, there

exactly this way. Interestingly, Gaby Wood suggests that it is

would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France. It was

possible that Mary Shelley was first inspired with the idea for

made of gold-plated copper, but it was the same size as a

the novel Frankenstein, which is after all the story of the cre-

living duck, and it moved just like one. Aside from its main

ation of an artificial man, when she saw another of the Ja-

digesting function, it could drink, muddle the water with its

quet-Drozes’ inventions. When touring Europe Shelley visited

beak, quack, rise, and settle back on its legs, and, spectators

Neuchâtel, home of the inventors, and it is possible that she

were amazed to see, it swallowed food with a quick, realis-



tic gulping action in its flexible neck. In a single wing alone,

After Kempelen’s death the Chess Player was sold to Johann

it was later revealed, there were more than 400 articulated

Nepomuk Maelzel, who is often credited with the invention

parts’ (o.c. 27). It was claimed that the digestive process was

of the metronome. Maelzel was court mechanician ‘or, as one

achieved in a small chemical laboratory Vaucanson had in-

evocative translation put it, “philosophical instrument maker,”

stalled in the duck’s intestines. However, a later owner of the

to the Hapsburgs. He was a close friend of Beethoven, whom

duck, the German writer Christian Friedrich Nicolai, ‘found

he persuaded to compose what became his “Battle” Sym-

that it did not digest its food at all. There was no “chemical

phony (Opus 91), for Maelzel’s Panharmonicon, an automated

laboratory,” he revealed – the food was simply aspirated into

orchestra of forty-two mechanical musicians’ (Wood 2002: 72-

the neck with the aid of bellows and tubes, and a separate

73). Somewhat less grand, but just as fascinating, is the fact

substance made to look like the digested version was held at

that the first mechanised waxwork in Madame Tussaud’s was

the ready in another compartment near the bird’s rear end’ to

Sleeping Beauty, who was reportedly modelled on Louis XV’s

be expelled at the desired time (o.c. 33).

mistress, Mme. du Barry. Sleeping Beauty’s ‘sole mechanical

There were other such marvels to baffle audiences of the

feature was a heaving chest’ (o.c. 25).

eighteenth century. In 1769 one Wolfgang von Kempelen cre-

In modern philosophy the idea of man as an automaton is

ated an Automaton Chess Player, a mechanical man dressed

closely linked to the context of libertinism and materialist

like a Turk who apparently played chess of his own accord

philosophy. The materialist atheists of the eighteenth century

and managed to beat even the best chess players at the game

launched an assault on the church and its moral dogmas.

(Faber 1983). It was later revealed that the Chess Player was

They combined this assault with a philosophy of pleasure

actually handled by a man hidden in the big box under the

and physical enjoyment. Such ideas were hardly new. In fact,

chess set on which the games were played. Through an in-

they originated in the thought of Epicurus and his Roman

genious system of magnets attached to the bottom of the

follower Lucretius. The rise of materialist philosophy in the

chess board the hidden man could follow the moves of the

modern era was closely linked to the rise of science in the

opponent. He would then guide the mechanical arm of the

Renaissance. Several scientists and thinkers took up ideas

automaton to make the desired counter-move. The Chess

that belonged to the atomist-materialist tradition. One such

Player hardly ever lost a game because the automaton was

thinker was Giulio Cesare Vanini (1585-1619), who set forth

often operated by several of the century’s greatest chess play-

a theory of evolution that predates that of Darwin by several

ers. In fact, the secret of the Chess Player was several times

centuries. For Vanini the entire world consists of a kind of

revealed in the press, but the public was so keen on being

primal substance which begins to mutate under the influ-

tricked that it simply ignored the common knowledge that

ence of the heat of the sun. Through this process of mutation

a man was hidden inside the automaton and assumed that

objects and creatures take form and finally man arises. This

here indeed was an automaton that had the gift of thought.

means that man himself is the object and temporary result


of evolution. In fact, Vanini claims that man has evolved from primate ancestors, as Darwin would later hold. Man’s mental life is a brain function. Mechanistic materialism subsequently became all the rage in the French Enlightenment, especially in the circle of the Encyclopédistes. Diderot developed a materialistic and mechanistic view of the world that was expressed in the remarkable dialogue Le Rêve de d’Alembert, written in 1769 but not published until 1830. In this dialogue Diderot has his characters expound an evolutionary view of the world that has several fascinating features. Movement is seen as inherent in matter. So Diderot does away with the dieu horlogier that the deists had kept handy to set the machinery of nature in motion. No such push was needed anymore for nature could now move of her own accord. Movement is in fact a process 234

of fermentation which causes dead matter to come to life and live matter to die. This means that all change takes place through internal processes that inhere in matter. Second, Diderot sees nature as one huge organism that constantly develops and engenders new life-forms. The key to this evolution can be found in the so-called monstra or monsters: the freaks of nature. Since nature is in constant change, some changes are bound to be unsuccessful and are discarded. That is how freaks of nature come about: they are nature’s failed experiments. Continual experimenting means that nature is in constant flux. Change is the rule, not constancy. No species, not even the human species, has an essence: ‘All things change into and out of each other; consequently all species... everything is a perpetual flux... Every animal is somewhat human; every mineral has something of the plant in it; every plant is partly animal. There is nothing distinct in nature’ (Diderot 2002: 103).



This means that mankind as we know it today is probably

l’individu’), which is simply ‘a need; and if one weren’t invited

merely a transitory phenomenon, a way-station in the con-

to do it by need, it would still be a pleasant thing’ (o.c. 173).

tinuing process of fermentation, and not something necessary

It is a small step from Diderot’s materialistic views to the

or final. Man is not the goal or purpose of nature, but a mere

idea of the human as an organic machine, a notion that was

phenomenon in it: a life-form that has emerged and will dis-

quite popular among the libertines and materialists. Pierre

appear again. ‘Who can say if fermentation and its products

Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), for example, ‘summed up

have run their course? Who can say at which point in the suc-

his view of man in the words Les nerfs – voilà tout l’homme and

cession of animal life-forms we have arrived? Who can say if

declared that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes

this deformed four foot high biped that is still called a man on

bile’ (Copleston 1960: 51). But the writer most readily associ-

the North pole, but who will surely loose this name as soon

ated with the idea of man as a machine is of course Julien

as his deformation advances, is not simply the image of a

Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), whose most famous work

passing species? Who can say whether everything isn’t about

is entitled L’Homme machine (1747). La Mettrie, who makes

to reduce itself to a great inert and immobile sediment? Who

explicit mention of Vaucanson in the course of his book, of-

can say how long this inertia will last? Who can say which

fers a radically materialistic view of the world (Israel 2001:

new race could emerge from such a huge mass of sensitive

704-709). He studied with the Dutch medical writer Hermann

living points?’ (o.c. 95-96) Such a materialistic view obviously

Boerhaave, whose books he translated and edited. The pub-

entails radical consequences for morality. Since the organism

lication of L’Homme machine caused so much uproar that La

is merely a collection of biological and chemical processes,

Mettrie had to flee France, seeking refuge in The Netherlands.

it is senseless to attach moral values or judgements to the

La Mettrie held that there was only one substance and that it

organism’s actions. Diderot makes this point in the third part

was governed by a force called “Nature”. This means that man

of the Rêve, where he applies this logic to sexuality. The organ-

is simply a link in a chain of mechanical causes and events.

ism has yearnings, desires, needs, drives. These are neither

This obviously leaves no room for a spiritual dimension. La

good nor bad in themselves: they are simply there. ‘So despite

Mettrie further claimed that religion is a political and social

the magnificent praise the fanatics have wasted on them,

device that is instituted for the benefit of the community and

and despite the civic laws that protect them, we will remove

to ensure social order. Many of these teachings were Spinozist

[chastity and temperance] from the catalogue of virtues. And

in origin. As we saw in Chapter One, Spinoza was at that time

we shall be agreed that, besides evil acts done on purpose,

considered to be one of the most evil thinkers in the history

there is nothing so childish, nothing so absurd, nothing so

of the world. For that reason, La Mettrie was recalcitrant to

detrimental, nothing so contemptible, nothing worse than

out himself as a follower of Spinoza. But as Romanticism ap-

those two rare qualities’ (o.c. 172). This rejection of morality

proached, Spinoza’s fortunes took a turn for the better. If Less-

famously leads Diderot to a defense of masturbation (‘plaisir à

ing could be a Spinozist, anyone could. And they would.