Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

Deconstruction

The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Jean-François Lyotard on the Sublime, Part Three

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime

Part Three

In Ticket to a New Decor, Jean-François Lyotard wrote of “anamesis,” a key concept in his account of the sublime. In the Platonic sense, anamesis is a form of pre-conscious collective memory that must be recovered through an act of conscious learning. Anamesis is a precondition for learning in the sense that there are certain innate ideas or internal concepts that are already present in the mind at birth. Kantian thought reconsidered these preexisting conditions as already-present conitive structures that make the instinctive understanding of certain concepts, such as “cause and effect” without having to re-experience or relearn on each occurrence that every effect has a cause. Because, as was pointed out in the past post, the Sublime is beyond the bounds of “normal” understanding and must be accounted for in another fashion, Lyotard applied anamesis to the Sublime stating,

All these wounds can be given names. Their names are strewn across the field of our unconscious like so many secret obstacles to the quiet perpetuation of the “modern project.” Under the pretense of safeguarding that project, the men and women of my generation in Germany imposed on their children a forty-year silence about the “Nazi interlude.” This interdiction against remembering stands as a symbol for the entire Western world. But can there be progress without remembering, without an act of anamnesis? Anamnesis constitutes a painful process of working through, a work of mourning for the conflicting emotions, loves and terrors, associated with these wounds.

Anamesis, then, is a form of recollection but, in the Lyotardian sense, it becomes a collective buried memory that resists being unearthed. Indeed Lyotard took the concept of the différend from his earlier book, The Differend, Phrases in Dispute (1983), and applied the idea to the sublime, suggesting a refusal or an inability for “phrases” to communicate with each other. In some ways, Lyotard solved a problem that Kant struggled with of how to fit the Sublime into his architectonic structure of Judgment and, in the end, as Lyotard pointed out, tacked his “analytic” of the Sublime to the larger book as an “appendix.” The Sublime is that human condition that refused to fit into Kant’s neat scheme that would allow it to parallel the Beautiful as an opposite pair. But there is a différend the prevents the Sublime from falling into Kantian place and due to irreconcilable differences, the Sublime dangles at the edge of Judgment as an appendix.

The Sublime is beyond defining in the positive sense of saying “this is what it is” and is (not)defined in its mute disability to present itself. Emmanuel Kant discussed the Sublime in terms of pure and present feeling, not discourse, but emotions that descend upon the body. It is not often noted, but the Sublime, as a feeling, is physical and sensual–breathlessness and speechlessness–as Kant noted,

The sublime moves; the expression of a person experiencing the full sense of the sublime is serious, at times rigid and amazed. On the other hand, the vivid sense of the beautiful reveals itself in the shining gaiety of the eyes, by smiling and even by noisy enjoyment. The sublime, in turn, is at times accompanied by some terror or melancholia, in some cases merely by quiet admiration and in still others by the beauty which is spread over a sublime place. The first I want to call the terrible sublime, the second the noble, and the third the magnificent. Deep loneliness is sublime, but in a terrifying way.

The Beautiful and the Sublime can be paired, but only to a certain extent. Both share the fact that both are feelings that must be expressed as judgments, both must lack and “interest” or private/individual concerns and therefore both must be universal. Although these judgments, being universal, are shared by the collective, these feelings are singular and are subjective. Both judgments also deploy the faculties of reason and understanding. So the judgments of the Beautiful and the Sublime are “pure” aesthetic concepts in that the beholder is “disinterested” but it is also impossible to point to any determinative reason for the judgment. Deciding upon what is Beautiful or Sublime is cannot be decided with finality because the concepts to which they refer are indeterminate, or without any finality. In writing to the confrontation with the Infinite, Lyotard stated,

Before this Idea, the dizziness of the thought that presents is transformed into a moral anguish. The imagination sinks to a zero of presentation,w which is the correlate of the absolute infinite. Nature founders with it, for nothing of it is presentable as an object of this idea.

Most aestheticians write more easily and more copiously of the Beautiful because the Sublime is so very divergent and escapes scholarly expression. The Beautiful is based securely within form and that form has limits, a shape and boundaries. The Beautiful, whether it is a beautiful woman, as imagined by Edmund Burke in Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), or a beautiful flower is always possible to understand. Because the beautiful form can be presented or represented, the viewer receives pleasure at the sight of something called “quality.” Of course the Beautiful is not necessarily connected to an object but, necessary to the concept of the beautiful, is its availability to understanding and to form and to pleasure.

Mixed_Flowers_with_a_Box_and_Pearls

Martin Johnson Heade, Mixed Flowers with a Box and Pearls (1869)

The Sublime, on the other hand, is unavailable: unavailable for limitation because one of its characteristics is its immense quantity, unavailable for the rules and order that guide beauty. When the Sublime occurs, it cannot be presented and it cannot be represented. As the result, the Sublime is unavailable for understanding and, therefore, belongs to the realm of reason. This is where the différend enters. When confronted with the Sublime, Reason demands satisfaction but satisfaction is unavailable because the Imagination, which is expected to be able to provide content for Reason, fails. Communication breaks down between the former allies: reason and imagination. The lack of or the impossibility of agreement or cooperation results in sharp feelings, not of pleasure and satisfaction, but of distinct displeasure. As Lyotard wrote,

This differend is to be found a the heart of sublime feeling at the encounter of the two “absolutes” equally “present” to thought, the absolute whole when it conceives, the absolutely measured when it presents..Their wing put into relation abolishes each of them as absolute..the conflict is not an ordinary dispute, which a third instance could grasp and put an end to, but a “differend.”

Above all else, the Sublime is Negative, it always eludes reason, imagination and understanding. The Sublime is on the wrong side of pleasure but in its very novelty or rarity, this overwhelming feeling fascinates some philosophers precisely because of its abject state for formlessness. This awakening interest in the Sublime is new, fueled undoubtedly by certain “sublime” events, such as the discovery of the concentrations camps and mass industrialized death and the dropping of two atomic bombs upon cities of civilians, and, more recently, September 11th. Lyotard, however, moved past actual events in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, and, in his later essays on avant-garde art, concentrated on one of his earlier passions, the visual arts. Indeed, many post-war artists have attempted to explore the Sublime but there is a real question (in my mind) whether the Sublime can possibly be “contained” within the boundaries of a work of art.

In the true Sublime, a very rare encounter, there is a suggestion of (the mind) being outside, of being a spectator watching or experiencing something over which one has no control or understanding. The Sublime, oddly enough, has not been applied to, for example, those who survived the Dresden bombing–those who were immersed in the event. For one who has experienced a Sublime event, feelings of fear and relief at having survived would dominate. But the outsider would view the Sublime experience with a mix of negative pleasure in that s/he is both attracted and repelled in the sense of “I could not look away.” The Sublime then is an Idea that cannot be articulated or brought under the precincts of comprehension and any pleasure that is attached to the Sublime is the Delight of the perverse relief at being a spectator. “Sublime violence, Lyotard said, is like lightening. It short-circuits thinking with itself.” He continued,

But the sublime is a sudden blazing, and without future..As it is expounded and deduced in its thematic, sublime feeling is analyzed as a double defiance. Imagination at the limits of what it can present does violence to itself in order to present that it can no longer present.

It becomes clear that the Sublime is not only singular, it is also internal and exists within an individual human being who has failed to comprehend precisely because there is no object involved. The Sublime, contrary to popular art thinking, never resides in nature because nature always has both purpose and form, while the Sublime lacks both purpose and form. Because the reflective quality of the Sublime, which is purposelessness (involuntary) feeling that takes over the mind of the beholder is on a repetitive mental loop, Lyotard refers to this state as “tautological” or a peculiarly repetitive form of a “statement.” So the mind, stunned and shattered by the event or occurrence recoils violently back upon itself and feel the pain of the limits of the Imagination. The mind, unable to present or to represent resorts to Reason or Idea, known as the super-sensible–outside the realm of sensible understanding.

Lyotard directly challenged Kant’s idea that Reason was supreme with the différend which kept reason and understanding forever apart and incompatible, unable to “speak” to one another, a “failure to communicate.” In order to explain the Sublime, Lyotard turned to the successive concepts of quod and quid: the quod is what is (and must occur first) and the quid is what happened. The mind cannot deal with the flash of the immediacy and the strength of the quod and even more stressful is the apparent immediacy of the quid, which seems to occur at the same time as the quod but is inherently different. The quod is the immaterial and the quid is that which is material. The struggle is always between the two: the quid which attempts to present or interpret the quod and the quod that resists representation, causing a différend, which with Lyoard is the Sublime itself.

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part Two

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part Two

The definition of aesthetics has always been difficult to grasp and perhaps what is more interesting in attempts to define aesthetics is the fact that in the middle of the eighteenth century, philosophers deemed it necessary to return to ideas that had been languishing since antiquity. The eighteenth century is the century of reason and rationalism par excellence, but there was a category of thinking and feeling and reacting that fell between the rational and the irrational and the rest of the century would be spent in trying to bring “feelings” into the realm of reason. At first, these studies of what would later be termed “aesthetics” were extensions of pre-existing philosophical systems.

Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) is usually credited with being the first to lecture on the topic of aesthetics in 1742 and published Aesthetica in two volumes in 1750 and 1758. Written (and available today) in Latin, a language spoken only by ancient and long dead Romans in that period, the book defined aesthetics in the following fashion: “Aesthetics (as the theory of liberal arts, as inferior cognition, as the art of beautiful thinking and as the art of thinking analogous to reason) is the science of sensual cognition.” From its very inception, aesthetics was concerned with the senses and with feelings, which caused an immediate problem for philosophy, which always seeks the universal, namely that “sensual cognition” is personal and unique, belonging to the individual. For example, in the history of aesthetics, the concept of the beautiful has always seemed clear. In his well-known attempt to define and divide the Beautiful and the Sublime, A Philosophical Inquiry into our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) devoted more than half the book to the Sublime, a notoriously difficult concept. On the Beautiful, he concluded,

On the whole, the qualities of beauty, as they are merely sensible qualities, are the following: First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but, fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright, but not very strong and glaring. Seventhly, or if it should have any glaring colour, to have it diversified with others. These are, I believe, the properties on which beauty depends; properties that operate by nature, and are less liable to be altered by caprice, or confounded by a diversity of tastes, than any other.

Of the Sublime, Burke wrote,

..the sublime is an idea belonging to self-preservation; that it is therefore one of the most affecting we have; that its strongest emotion is an emotion distress; and that no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.

When one reads this book, written in 1757, it is clear that it is laced with the writer’s personal opinions on topics such as what makes a woman beautiful that have, with time, become dated. What Burke wrote about was “feelings,” but what was needed in philosophy, as Emmanuel Kant began to understand, was some kind of universal standard for the Beautiful and the Sublime. The mindset of the eighteenth century demanded an secular architecture for humanity that was all inclusive and, in his Analytic of the Sublime, Kant built a structure that included that most difficult of all topics in aesthetics, the Sublime. Kant differentiate between the “Mathematically” and the Dynamically” sublime, concluding,

Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us). Everything that provokes this feeling in us, including the might of nature which challenges our strength, is then, though improperly, called sublime, and it is only under presupposition of this idea wihin us, and in relation to it, that we are capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which inspires deep respect in us, not by the mere display of its might in nature, but more by the faculty which is planed in us of estimating that might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it.

The importance of Kant’s concept of the Sublime is that, unlike Beauty, which resided in object, whether natural or human made, is that the Sublime is a reaction within the mind. But in order to deal with the Sublime in a universal fashion, Kant needed an example of an Event that induced or caused a Sublime reaction. That Event had to have a universal basis (or as universal as a European philosopher in his era could conceive) and Kant’s choice example of an Event in the Critique of Judgment (1790) was the French Revolution. Even today it is possible to understand the feelings of joy, relief and hope for the citizens of Europe, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, and the feelings of fear and terror on the part of the ruling classes that would have been collectively aroused by the overthrowing of a class that had ruled France for centuries. These feelings, at least in France, would have been fueled by the spectacle of a huge and overwhelming public uprising that swept the spectators up into what Kant termed “enthusiasm,” an intense and shared reaction experienced by the witnesses.

But the task of Jean-François Lyotard in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991) differed from that of Kant. Following his train of thought from The Postmodern Condition to The Differend, Lyotard realized that the Sublime needed to be rethought in relation to current or recent Events, namely the Holocaust. The philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, was the precursor for Lyotard, entering into that most delicate and treacherous territory of mass murder, which is among the contemporary events that are simply “unrepresentable.” In Negative Dialectics, Adorno grappled with the problem wrought by Dialectics:

Dialectics serves the end of reconcilement. It dismantles the coercive logical character of its own course; that is why it is denounced as “panlogism.” As idealistic dialectics, it was bracketed with the absolute subject’s predominance as the negative impulse of each single move of the concept and of its course as a whole.

Negation is of paramount importance for the Sublime which is an odd combination of “Thou Shalt Not” and “Thou Can Not.” It is the issue of “presentability” or “representation” or the conditions of or the possibility of representability that became the mode of entry for Lyotard into the question of the Sublime and the Holocaust. The Sublime is a question of ability and inability. If “taste,” in the Kantian sense, is accord with the capacity or ability to present or to represent an object which can (has the ability to) correspond to a given concept, then the sublime is formlessness or absence of form–inability to conceive and to reason and to utter or to represent. Paradoxically and ironically the Sublime, described by Kant as mathematically infinite, is also about limits. The imagination, limited by the Event, fails to present any object that could possibly conform to the concept, which is, in itself, is incomprehensible. In its own way, the Sublime is iconoclastic and opposes graven images. Because the sublime is unpresentable, the figuration or representation must be avoided and what is (not)presented must be blank or blanche, not empty or wiped out but simply absent, to convey the limits of an imagination brought up short by the Event.

turner_slave_ship_1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner. The Slave Ship (1840)

The Sublime makes us see, shows us only through taboos and by prohibition, meaning that for the artist, the issue becomes how to present the unpresentable without presenting it. Thus the power of the poetry comes from not saying and the pleasure of not seeing comes from the pain of being deprived of the privilege of the direct gaze. That said, in the nineteenth century, many works of art were considered “sublime” in the general parlance of the time. For example, J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming On (1840) was described in 1843 by John Ruskin in the following terms, ..the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions—(completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner’s works)—the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea. One of the cornerstones of the nineteenth century mind was its supreme confidence in its ability to conquer, even the unconquerable notion of the Sublime. Turner’s The Slave Ship is surely an example of the concept of the Sublime of his century but it violated the “rules” of the Sublime, which are that the Sublime is an Event and that this Event cannot be depicted. But, in its assumption–manifested in Turner’s painting–that the Sublime can be viewed/seen–the reading of the Sublime has weakened and had been watered down over time. The vernacular interpretation of the Sublime as had been inherited by the twentieth century had to be contested and the meaning to of the Sublime needed to be brought back to its original sense–the Sublime cannot be thought much less presented. In 1991 Jean-François Lyotard set out to deal with that which is unpresentable, which will be discussed in the next post.

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part One

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part One

The way in which the mind of Jean-François Lyotard worked was slow and systematic and thorough. The notion of the potential injustice in language games appeared in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and was fully explored and applied to the Holocaust in The Differend (1983) where Lyotard brought up the Emmanuel Kant’s discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment (1790). Although almost two decades separate these two books, and Lyotard’s Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime continued a discussion on Kantian aesthetics that would culminate in a protracted encounter with the sublime in the avant-garde which played out in his late works. It is this culmination of the sublime into the avant-garde that has most interested contemporary writers who tend to avoid the more difficult work of 1991 in preference for the occasions where Lyotard wrote more directly of specific works of art. But, like most of Lyotard’s work, this book on the sublime has a long gestation.

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime was proceeded by several earlier books and by shattering political events that cast a shadow over much of Lyotard’s writing through the 1980s. The uprising of May 1968 seemed so significant at the time but, in retrospect, it is the aftermath of failure and a return to the “normalcy” of rule by Charles de Gaulle and the reactionary 198s0s that would inform Lyotard during that decade. Against this backdrop, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy held a seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and Lyotard, post his work on the “Postmodern Condition,” gave a paper called “Enthusiasm” in 1981 * and entered into his mature phrase. Post-Freud and post-Marx and post-May 1968 this short paper by Lyotard returned to Kant who attempted to interpret the ongoing French Revolution and the wave of feeling that swelled and filled Europe with a sense of political change and hope for the future as free people. Kant’s meditation on the “enthusiasm” that surrounded the Revolution was embedded in a small section in the Critique of Judgment, his chapter on the Analytic of the Sublime; and it is with this detail that Lyotard picks up a political discussion that led him to The Differend, which led him to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.

The intellectual journey of Lyotard to philosophy was a political one. In the beginning of Peregrinations. Law, Form, Event (1988), he explained witty that, due to his early marriage and fatherhood, becoming a monk was impossible, his next choice of vocation, art, was rendered moot due to “lack of talent,” and, finally, his desire to be a historian was thwarted by a weak memory. Philosophy was his last choice, and Lyotard spent years as a civil servant teaching high school students in France, but he gave up all but political writing in the service of the forthcoming Marxist revolution. In a way, it was the collapse of the “Days of May” that sealed the fate of Lyotard to evolve into a philosopher who sough a way to reenter politics without being (too overtly) political. The Critique of Judgment was a far more political document than the Critique of Practical Reason within Kant’s oeuvre, but his thoughts on politics never resolved themselves into a fourth book on, say Political Reason. On one level what Lyotard was attempting to do was to write a Kantian fourth critique, a political one in which political theory was elevated to the level of a philosophical critique. The former road for political critique, Marxism, seemed less clear, but Kantian thinking provided a higher ground from which to consider politics.

It is very Lyotardian to prepare the way to a new work over a period of years, moving from one territory to the other, and it was this 1991 excursion into the dusty and neglected topic of the sublime (and the beautiful) that shook aesthetics out of its formalist slumber. The problems Lyotard faced in returning to Kant were extensive, for fully two centuries had passed since the 18th century philosopher attempted to synthesize and surpass the earlier tentative writings on aesthetics. The 20th century philosopher re-entered Kant through the path of the “event.” The event of his century was, for Lyotard, the Holocaust, the event that stopped history and forced subsequent “history” to be written in a different fashion. The event of his century was, for Kant, the French Revolution. What connects these two “events” was that both were apocalyptical–both ended in disaster–and neither was witnessed nor experienced by the philosophers. However, what pulls the events apart was the fact that the French Revolution was a deliberate spectacle with thousands of witnesses and the Holocaust produced, not witnesses, as Lyotard asserted, but victims and perpetuators, both equally silent.

bastille

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

Lyotard explained the Kantian concept of the Event, which is a “sign of history,” residing as part of but beyond the narrative of history, by writing

..what Kant called a Begebenheit, an event or “act of delivering itself which would also be an act of deliverance, a deal (une donne), if you will..The sought-after Begebenheit would have the task of “presenting’ free causality according to the three temporal directions of past, present, and future. What is this enigmatic, if not contradictory, “act of delivering itself?”

Kant’s event, Lyotard reported in Le Differend, was not a “momentous deed” or a revolution. The event, Kant asserted

“..is simply the mode of thinking (Denksugnsart) of the spectators (Zuschauer) which betrays itself (such verrät) publicly (öffentlich) in this game of great upheavals (Umwandlungen, such as revolutions), and manifest switch a universal, yet disinterested sympathy (Teilnehmung) for the players on one side against those on the other..Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates (beweist) a character of he human race at large and all at once, and owing to its disinterestedness, a moral (moralisch) character of humanity, at least in its predisposition (Anlage), a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress insofar as its capacity is sufficient for the present.

Despite the disasters of the Terror and the Final Solution, these Events started the Modern and the Postmodern respectively. The French Revolution gave rise, despite the bloodbaths and rolling heads in city squares, to the Modern era and both responded to and gave rise to modern philosophy, while the Holocaust brought all the hopeful optimism of modernity crashing down. In a general sense, in Lyotard’s différend, the Holocaust is sublime because it defied comprehension, but he continued his discussion of the sublime in The Differend through the avenue of “enthusiasm” or Kant’s way of trying to understand the “feeling” of the French Revolution. The odd word, “enthusiasm,” was intended to connote the sense of being caught up in an “event” that was stronger than any one human being who might be swept up in the hope of the Revolution. Notably, Kant wrote the Third Critique years before the Terror broke out, so this sublime feeling of an enthusiastic response to the spontaneous outbreak of proletariat rebellion, like May 1868, utterly failed when Napoléon became Emperor. In his extended discussion of Kant in this book, Lyotard wrote that

Enthusiasm is a modality of the feeling of the sublime. The imagination tries to supply a direct, sensible presentation for an Idea of reason (for the whole is an object of an Idea, as for example, in the whole of practical, reasonable beings). It does not succeed and it thereby feels its impotence, but at the same time, it discovers its destination, which is to bring itself into harmony with the Ideas of reason through an appropriate presentation.

Kant’s Third Critique attempted to deal with judgment over human conditions and situations that defied reason and involved the domain of feelings, or what we today could call psychology, but which cannot be reduced to personal reactions and must be brought into the realm of universal judgment. This in-between zone, between the pure and the practical, needed its own critique in which Kant sought to investigate the grounds for judgment where the elements are indeterminate. There are certain objects (art) that give rise to feelings of pleasure, but there are experiences that give rise to displeasure, a level of displeasure that,when it exceeds the pleasure of agreeable beauty, is called the “sublime.” In the typical Modernist fashion, there is a structured binary, suggesting that the beautiful and the sublime can be contrasted along the lines of pleasure/displeasure or weak/strong and so on, but Lyotard seized upon a small part of the Critique, the Analytic of the Sublime and, within that section, one concept “enthusiasm.”

The feeling of enthusiasm was, par excellence, the experience of the sublime, sublime because the feeling could not be presented. The inability to present is related to the fundamental incompatibilities within the sublime itself, a clash between an intensity of pleasure that becomes pain. Enthusiasm is a knife edge sensation that teeters on the verge of what Kant called “dementia” or a kind of insanity, hence his odd insistence on disinterested sympathy, as a bulwark against a fall into madness, which is exactly what happened in France during the Terror. Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, the spectacle of the Fall of the Bastille, the drama of the Oath of the Tennis Court and the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man excited the imagination of those level-headed (disinterested) enough to see to the future. In other words, the Event of the French Revolution was less as sequential (and predictable) series of occurrences and more of a Begebenheit or a “sign of history” “delivering itself.” This is the sublime, Lyotard explained,

Great changes, like the French Revolution, are not, in principle, sublime, by themselves..the sublime is best determined by the indeterminate..The Begebenheit which ought to make a sign of history could be found only on the side of the audience watching he spectacle of the upheavals..The spectators, placed on other national stages, which make up the theater hall for the spectacle and where absolutism generally reigns, cannot on the contrary, be suspected of having empirical interests in making their sympathies public (öffentlich), they even run the risk of suffering repression at the hands of their governments..The Teilnehmung through desire is not a participation in the act. But it is worth more, because the feeling of the sublime, for its sake, is in fact spread out onto all national stages.

Closely related to the Differend, then, is the Sublime, a topic which Lyotard continued in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which will be further discussed in the next post.

*Published as Enthusiasm. The Kantian Critique of History by Stanford University in 2009.

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Podcast 41 Painting 7: Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg and Modernist Aesthetics

Clement Greenberg was a rare character in history: the right person in the right place at the right time, writing the right things to the right people. A New York intellectual and art critic, Greenberg was uniquely positioned to be “present at the creation” of The New York School during the 1940s. Greenberg’s art critical writings made the case for the importance of American art in the history of Modernism. Perhaps his most important contribution was to introduce the Modernist aesthetic or definition of art to his American audience. His “formalist” ideas would dominate the New York Art world for decades to come.

 

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast Episode 34: Whistler, Part Three

WHISTLER AND ART FOR ART’S SAKE

Part Three

Whistler was unusual among artists of his time in that he answered back to critics and took pains to establish his own discourse on his own art. His unique way of painting, without the meticulous detail of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, seemed immoral and insulting to the art critic John Ruskin who made accusatory statements about Whistler. Fiercely independent and willing to lose a patron for the sake of his artistic vision, the artist sued when the aging British critic. Although the jury agreed with Whistler on the point of artistic freedom, it gave him only a farthing as a payment. But the publicity shone light on the quarrel over the rights of the avant-garde artists and what the public wanted to enjoy. The resulting trial established a new definition for Modernist art, with Whistler following up with his now-famous “Ten O’Clock Lecture.”

Also listen to “Whistler, Part One”

and “Whistler Part Two”

 

 

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 21: German Romanticism

GERMAN ROMANTICISM AND

THE SPIRITUAL PAINTINGS

OF CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH

As with Spain, the key to German Romanticism is the presence of Napoléon’s “liberating army” on German soil. While much of Germany was loyal to the French emperor, especially the city of Dresden, the roots of German identity, which created the modern German nation, stem from this occupation by a foreign power. The expression of “German-ness” originate in the Romantic era with the rise of a unique German poetry, aesthetics, philosophy, and the visual arts. There are important similarities between American transcendentalism and German pantheism, a way of expressing the spiritual in an age of Enlightenment. The best know painter of the German feeling for the land was Caspar David Friedrich whose seemingly benign landscapes were also patriotic statements of a German artist.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics

GEORG WILHELM FRIEDRICH HEGEL (1779-1831)

Hegel and his Impact on Art and Aesthetics

Like any aesthetician, G. W. F. Hegel does not get involved in any particular movement or style or work of art, but, that said, he was very definite about the kind of art where Beauty could be found. Like Emmanuel Kant, Hegel brings art and freedom together and anticipates the idea of art-for-art’s sake. For Hegel, the Idea is always opposed to Nature. The mind is contrasted to the mindlessness of matter or nature. The mind creates art, which gives an idea to nature. This idea is the unity of the externality or objectivity of nature and the subjectivity or personal vision of the artist. As with Kant, the spectator of the work of art is as important as the art maker for Hegel. Beauty in art is the emanation of the Absolute or Truth through an object. Beauty can be shown only in a sensuous form called the Ideal, which transcends the Idea to become a special form. Like all of Hegel’s triads, nothing is lost: nature and idea are the Other to one another but together they create an organism, the work of art.

The contemplative mind strives to see the Absolute. In order to see Beauty, this detached mind must transcend nature. By freeing itself, the mind perceives the spiritual content of the work of art, which must also be free in order to be Beautiful. Kant insisted that the higher form of beauty had to be free and independent and Hegel followed suit. Hegel insisted that, to manifest Beauty, art must expel all that is external or contiguous or unnecessary. Remember, in Hegel’s system, each part of the triad must be “pure” and can contain only its dialectical opposite. For art to reveal Beauty is to reveal Truth, which can only be pure. This is why art can never imitate nature, which is, mindless and irrational. Nature must be reversed with its antithesis, the idea, which brings about the inner unity necessary for spiritual content: nature, idea, spirit = art.

If art must be free, then art should show, not just Beauty and Truth, but Freedom itself, which is the property of the free mind. Hegel, true to his age, is a child of Neoclassicism and, like many Germans, was looking back to a Golden Age when human beings were free. Part of being “modern” is being un-free. Society has demands, which are placed upon people who have lost their sense of wholeness and self-actualization. Thinking along the same lines as Friedrich Schiller’s “alienation,” Hegel felt that his own age was a diminished one. Therefore, the artist should take subject matter from the past, a heroic age populated by characters that were free of the social restrictions so prevalent of the industrial age.

Ancient peoples, Hegel assumed could determine their own destinies and could make their own lives on their own terms. While the current times were particular to the modern period, the primeval era could manifest life in its universal and essential form. By stripping the process of living down to its basics, one is nearing the first cause of life, the logic of existence in which one is in the process of becoming. One can “become” only if one is free, linking the rational with the free to the universal. Hegel explained art’s predilection for the depiction of the high-born because those individuals are free, assuming that the lower classes are unsuited to being represented because, being subservient to their masters, they can never be free and therefore, never universal. Stripping away the elitist assumptions that princes are preferential to peasants as subject matter in art, it is possible to note that Hegel was insisting that the artist attempt to reach the universal through art.

But Hegel was a also creature of history. The idea of “princes” should not be taken so literally in the modern era, an era badly suited to the classical art of the past. Hegel understood that the antique forms were indissolubly linked to their own time. Greek and Roman sculpture expressed the ideal in universal poses of repose, rather than with active poses linked to a particular action. But in the modern age, the new society did not lend itself to rest and repose, which could be found only in the spirit of the artist or in his personality. The modern age has come to realize that any hope of freedom or infinity is impossible and the human mind has no escape, except into itself. The new subjectivity of the spirit produces a new kind of art in which the artist imprints him or herself upon the art. the result is Romantic art which is the art of modern Europe. Unlike ancient art which needs the sensuous manifestation of the classical statue, Romantic art gives rise to an independent spirituality or mind which leaves behind its traces as sensuous remnants. It then logically follows that sculpture is not the appropriate receptacle for the spirit of the Romantic artist. Clearly, Hegel could not conceive of a form of sculpture that was allowed to transcend its traditional role of starting with and then transcending nature into idealism. Sculpture was, despite its attempt at perfection of form, too bound to the “real.”

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

Painting, in its two-dimensional flatness, is the most suitable manifestation for the spirit, mind, and personality of the artist. Painting is appearance, rather than actuality or matter and, as a mental process of the artist, is subjective. The external world is allowed to enter into the subjective world of art because concrete reality is transformed through art. Hegel allows for the ugly, the grotesque, suffering and evil in Romantic art as the other necessary element in his dialectic. Beauty must contain ugliness, just as Truth conceals Lie, and for reconciliation to take place beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.

Although Hegel’s ideas on art and aesthetics were inspiration for those who believed in “art-for-art’s-sake” or the avant-garde, his deterministic philosophy was politically very retrograde and repressive. There is another way to view Hegel’s “princes.” As with his colleague at the University of Berlin, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Hegel believed that Germany’s destiny was to become the dominant power in Europe, due to the forces of history, which had passed England and France and had progressed to Germany. A snob and a social climber, the consummate academic ego, Hegel was enamored of power and, during the French occupation of Germany, was thrilled by Napoléon. Like Fichte, he believed that Germany was a chosen nation and that it had the moral right to pursue its hegemonic dominance ruthlessly with “absolute privileges over all others. It should behave as the spirit willed it and will be dominant in the world…” With Hegel, war and dominance as historical tools of historical progress entered into European thought. Because his philosophy was based in history, Hegelian aesthetics also impacted upon art history and art criticism. The basic structure of art history has followed his model of successive and contrasting movements.

The history of art has been told as a succession of conflicting styles by Heinrich Wölfflin and as a tale of successive and contrasting movements by history based upon formalist models. The ancient produced the modern, the universal produced the particular, the timeless produced the contingent and modern art is the synthesis of these conflicting forces. As a synthesis, Romantic art must be independent and begins to exist on its own. Hegel’s aesthetics inspire the theory of the avant-garde: thesis, antithesis, synthesis—Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and so on. One avant-garde movement, assigned the positive position, opposed another avant-garde movement, the negative or counter position, resulted in a dialectic, which pushed art ever forward and towards an absolute of purity. The result of the influence of Hegel, art criticism, especially under the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, was model of artistic progression from representation towards abstraction. By using the avant-garde and its oppositional stance as the engine of change, art history in the Twentieth Century has been Hegelian in structure.

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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

THE PHILOSOPHY OF HEGEL

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831)

It has been said that all philosophy is simply a series of footnotes on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. It can also be said that all modern philosophy is a series of footnotes no the work of Emmanuel Kant. Writing in the early Nineteen Century, G. W. F. Hegel inherited the philosophy of Kant and accepted the (Copernican) notion that the mind constructed the world but then proceeded to modify much that was Kantian in his own philosophical system. In The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel assumed the universe was rational and that through a progress of deduction, human beings would eventually find and agree upon the truth.

The question was the starting point for the process of deducing the truth. Kant had introduced the notion of the Thing-in-Itself, a concept that Hegel found difficult to accept. Like Plato, Kant assumed there were what Plato called “Forms” that were beyond the reach of human consciousness. The forms are unseeable and unknowable and exist only as ideas. Ideas are “beings” that produce the world. All existence is Appearance and all appearance is dependent upon the world. According to Plato, Things of the world are mere “copies” of Universals or Ideas. Copies of the form/idea are made by and/or through Images of Ideas being stamped upon Matter by God(s). Matter, for Plato was formless; matter was emptiness. Matter is “not-being”, something that has not yet arisen from Idea. Matter is primordial and independent. The Thing comes into being only when matter is acted upon.

According to Aristotle, the Form, the Universal of a Thing, is also its End or Purpose. The final cause (end) (thing) is identical with the formal cause (form). A purpose must logically exist prior to the execution of the form. This conclusion leads Aristotle to the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Matter in itself is absolutely formless, the substrate of things. In other words, matter is actually nothing but it is also potentially all things. Matter gains actuality—becomes a “thing”—by acquiring Form. Form is actuality, for Aristotle. With the Greeks, the world process is crucial: there is the end, the form, and the universal. A “thing” is a combination of matter and form. Without form, which must always be Universal, the thing cannot exist. Compared to the universality of form, the object/matter must be particular.

All things strive towards their own ends. Form molds matter and impels it to a higher state of existence. The end must be present at the beginning; otherwise the end could not exert propelling force. There is no new element, in other words, for the new must be present as a potentiality of the old. The ancients considered development to be the process by which that which was latent or hidden came to light. For the ancients, and for Plato and Aristotle, the world was driven by this dualism between idea and actuality, by these contradictions, which drive development. These ancient ideas will be Hegel’s starting point and the source of his famous Dialectical Method, an invention that allowed him to ground truth and reality in the process of deductive Logic.

An idealist, who learned from Kant, Hegel accepted Kant’s Copernican Revolution or Kant’s concept of the self or Self as an enduring entity, that is independent of events and stands alone in a condition of self-awareness. This “awareness” is the awareness of the object. This recognition of the object results in the realization of the difference between the self and the “other”. This moment is the origin of consciousness or being, an awareness of object as “other-than-me”. Things are content, and Hegel distinguished between the object, as it is “in itself,” and the object as it is for an observer. Although the concept of duality originated in ancient philosophy, modern philosophy credits René Descartes with the “Cartesian split.” Since Descartes, Western thought assumed a split between mind and matter.

It was David Hume who questioned Greek idealism, exposing the inherent weakness of the dualism between mind and matter by returning to the question of how do we know reality? Or what is knowledge? Hume explored the most basic concept upon which all knowledge depends: cause and effect, both of which must be both universal and necessary. True, we experience what we name “cause” and then we experience what we call “effect.” But we have done nothing more than placed a convenient label upon the events that transpired. We have not established knowledge. Experience in itself is never universal nor is experience in itself ever necessary. The connection between cause and effect is an assumption and any “knowledge” is therefore illusionary. Hume determined that knowledge could never arise out of experience and thus exposed the metaphysical base of philosophy. Kant immediately understood the implications of Hume’s thought: once the metaphysics of philosophy had been revealed as a “faith based” system, any knowledge of the world was now impossible. We knew nothing but our own beliefs and belief is not knowledge.

In order to correct David Hume and to put philosophy back on track, Kant proposed space and time as conditions that are both universal and necessary. The universal and necessary conditions of Space and Time give us objects. Space and Time are a priori conditions, they preexist thought and make thought possible. Space and Time are perceptions of our own minds and do not exist apart form us and are forms of our own perceptive faculty. Space and time are Forms of sensations and these forms are filled with sense data. The objects perceived by us through space and time are not real objects: they are Appearances. Thought is conceptual and non-sense-based concepts—synthetic a priori judgments—are derived, not from experience, but from constructions made by the mind. These concepts are the result of formal judgments of Logic.

We arrive at these concepts thorough the epistemological operations of the mind, Kant called “categories”, and there were twelve of them. The twelve categories were subjective, and, because they were universal, were necessarily static, and unchanging. However, as Hegel noticed, these categories were not deduced one from another and were therefore arbitrary models made up by Kant in order to show the way the mind worked. If the categories were not Logical, then the Reason-based philosophy of Kant was not on a firm base. And this is the problem Hegel wanted to solve: to build a Logical base for the foundation of the Categories.

Read also “Kant and Reason” and “Friedrich Schiller” and “Hegel and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel, Art, and the Dialectical Method” and “Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Friedrich Schiller

SCHILLER AND ROMANTICISM

Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805)

Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, were literally a series of letters written in 1793 to the Danish Prince, Friedrich Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenborg. According to William F. Wertz, some of these letters burned in a fire a year later but Schiller rewrote and published them in a journal he founded. Schiller was writing at a time that seemed only a few years away from Kant’s writing, yet despite the swiftness of the distribution of Kant’s ideas, the entire world had changed since 1790. The French Revolution, once seen as the uplifting expression of freedom had collapsed into mob rule and a bloodthirsty terror. The question was how should one obtain freedom? For Schiller, this was not a practical question to be manifested through laws, as demonstrated by the American revolution, but one of how humans can be brought to freedom. Who can rise to the challenge? One must pass through the Aesthetic and become ennobled, enhanced, improved, and uplifted by the moral experience. In viewing the exciting and terrifying French Revolution, one would be tempted to attempt to determine who deserved freedom–The dangerous mob, which was venting rage born of centuries of suffering. The aristocrats who were already elevated persons, undeserving as they seemed? For Schiller, the path to freedom and self-actuality was art. Art, in Schiller’s view, was capable of being independent–in principle–from the state and the artist could, in fact, rise above the times and express the age itself.

Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, his philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist.

Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Emmanuel Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, Kant’s philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist and rewriting the role for art from a subjective one to an objective (real world) endeavor.

It was Schiller who aestheticized morality, linking moral actions to the ability to appreciate the beauty of such idealism. In the Letters, which were rewritten for wider publication in 1795 for his magazine Die Horen, he stated that, “it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.” Schiller was writing his essays at a pivotal moment in time. Germany was not yet a unified or modern country, nor did it have a powerful middle class. As a nation it had yet to be industrialized and faced another century and a half of autocratic rule, and, yet Romanticism with its emphasis on the individual somehow managed to thrive in artistic circles. He wrote to his princely patron in terms that one would not readily assume would find favor with one so powerful, yet, in Letter II, Schiller laid out his ultimate goal, stating that he wanted to direct that attention of his patron to “a loftier theme than that of art” and that “the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom” would be the center of his discourse.

Like Winckelmann, Schiller admired Greek culture and imagined that the ancient society was fully integrated with the natural, unlike modern culture which separated humans from nature, thus “alienating” men and women from the ground of their own making. Schiller died four decades before Marx would re-define alienation but the poet foresaw what the philosopher would witness, the splitting of the modern personality, rent and torn between intellect and emotion. Schiller’s stress on the emotional aspects of alienation is best understood in response to the subjectivism of the Romantic era and as an answer to the highly artificial age of the Enlightenment, which stressed reason and rationality in the name of nature, creating an overly mannered society through rules–the source of the aching alienation. Schiller took to heart that which is suggested in Kant–that art should have a higher role in society, creating a progressive society that would be “aesthectic” in itself, achieving harmony and unity in a world where nature and humans are one. Acutely aware of the modern agony of alienation, Schiller sought to lead humans towards wholeness through art, where intellect and emotions could be resolved into a healthy and united whole. Art allows all aspects of the mind to indulge in “free play” and creates a place where reason and passion can become balanced into a perfected form. In Letter IV, he compared what he called “mechanical artist,” a common term at that time, referring to the despised academic artist, to the engaged artist who works with society itself. He wrote, “The political and educating artist follows a very different course, while making man at once his material and his end. In this case the aim or end meets in the material, and it is only because the whole serves the parts that the parts adapt themselves to the end. The political artist has to treat his material man with a very different kind of respect from that shown by the artist of fine art to his work. He must spare man’s peculiarity and personality, not to produce a deceptive effect on the senses, but objectively and out of consideration for his inner being.”

Schiller followed not just the lead of Kant but also the lead of Alexander Baumgarten in writing aesthetics for the Romantic period. Kant wrote of the abstract arabesque as his ideal form of the beautiful, but Baumgarten had envisioned art as having a more central role in human life as did Schiller. “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” concerns itself with the importance of the “aesthetic” that is the sensuous as a counterpoint to the intellectual for the development of the human being. Kant’s Critique of Judgment was the capstone of his epistemological theory, but Schiller was concerned less with theory and more with the predicament of modern life. Beauty, for Schiller, is the possibility that human beings can re-create themselves into higher beings. If Kant is the “head” or “intellect” of aesthetics, then Schiller is the “heart” of art philosophy. While Kant’s discussion of art was strictly conceptual and abstract, Schiller was a poet himself and knew of the problems and rewards of creation. But Schiller was also a playwright and a philosopher who was aware of his condition as a “hermaphrodite” or a hybrid creature: the artist who was also a philosopher. Schiller the artist appeared in his philosophical writings only in his poetic and rhetorical tone, for he rarely wrote on art itself. The Letters, for example, were political and moral documents.

One of the earliest translations of Schiller’s Letters into English was presented with an elegant Preface by the translator John Chapman who wrote in 1845, the word “aesthetics” “..as used by Schiller..expresses that state of humanity which manifests a harmonious and equal development of its entire nature, exclusive of the will, comprehending the circle of its sensuous, intellectual and moral attributes. It supposes an absence of all constraints from any particular law, or more truly such an equable and perfect action of all laws of nature which centre in humanity that none dominate–there is no tendency in any particular direction–hence an equal aptness and capacity in every direction. It does not embrace the idea of any special kind of doing, but the universal ability to do. The complement of this development is aesthetic Beauty.

In this 1845 English edition of The Philosophical and Aesthetic Letters and Essays of Schiller, the translator, J. Weiss, provided his own Introduction. “These Letters,” he said, “stand unequaled in the department of Aesthetics, and are so esteemed in Germany, which is os fruitful upon that topic. Schiller is Germany’s best Aesthetician, and these letters contain the highest moments of Schiller.” Schiller was not a follower of Kant, but he was an astute reader of the last Critique and he picked up on the Kantian term “play,” or the inventiveness of the genius. Schiller himself coined the phrase “play impulse” a theory that Weiss regards as “the chief nerve of his aesthetic system.” Schiller wrote in Letter XV, “The object of the sensuous instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is named Life in the widest acceptation: a conception that expresses all material existence and all that is immediately present in the senses. The object of the formal instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is called shape or form, as well in an exact as in an inexact acceptation; a conception that embraces all formal qualities of things and all relations of the same to the thinking powers. The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form; a term that serves to describe all æsthetic qualities of phænomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.” And then he states emphatically and movingly, “For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”

Schiller was concerned about the fullest development of human potential through Aesthetic Education. He understood that as a civilization lost refinement (Beauty), and, in drifting away from taste, the culture began to decline. Indeed, after the horrifying experience of watching the deterioration of the Revolution into violence, Schilller gave up on the idea of reforming society through overthrowing one government in favor of another and looked instead to the re-formation of people, society, into evolving humans who would be informed (reformed) through aesthetics, which would, eventually, enoble the citizens. People would change and evolve through an elevation of morals and ethics, which in and of themselves were a form of beauty of becoming something greater. The question of improving society is a practical one, combining the rational side and the sensuous side, overcoming the duality or the dialectic through a third force, the play-impulse or the Spieltriech. Anticipating and inspiring Hegel, Schiller suggests a play, as it were, of opposites, a dialectic, thesis, antithesis, to be reconciled by a third force or synthesis. He suggested that the Stofftrieb or the material drive and the Formtrieb or the form drive would be mediated by the Spieltrieb. As Weiss explained, “The aesthetic Art-impulse will never unfold itself, if the Play-impulse has not first become active.”

While Kant set up charts and establishes oppositions, Schiller established evolution through activities of the dialectical. In Letter XX, he wrote, “Thus, to pass from sensation to thought, the soul traverses a medium position, in which sensibility and reason are at the same time active, and thus they mutually destroy their determinant power, and by their antagonism produce a negation. This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the æsthetic.” In his A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, Steven D. Martinson remarked, “For Schiller, the salvation of the human species lies neither in religion nor in science but, in art. Art alone is capable of effecting a balance between all of one’s individual faculties. Clearly, Schiller’s work marks a profound shift in German culture. He is the first to replace religion with art explicitly in theory…One of Schiller’s foremost contributions is the knowledge that practical reason operates in concert with aesthetics. The actualization of moral knowledge in the present that is gained in the process of aesthetic education means that the ideal of humane humanity serves as a regulative idea for the improvement of individuals and societies over time. Schiller’s ideas are not mere abstractions that await their realization in a distant and unforeseeable future. Rather one strives to enact the moral knowledge that one has acquired affectively in and through aesthetic education.”

Later Georg Lukács would complain that Schiller avoided political involvement by denying the State any role in this “aesthetic” education. But presumably humans would never evolve on their own if this education was controlled by the state. It is possible, therefore to free the arts from the state for the artist to achieve an aesthetic education, while at the same time the artist can put art to practical and political purposes. From a Kantian perspective, Schiller is internally contradictory but from a Schillerian perspective, the freedom of art from the state and its use in culture–practical use–is a resolution of the dialectic through the play-impulse. Thus for Schiller aesthetics and politics become seamlessly entwined into a synthesis.

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