Art Deco as Product Design

Defining Art Deco as Consumerism

The Artist and Product Design

In the spring of 1925, the city of Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries), which was a trade fair. The emphasis was on merchandise was carriers of design and art with the goal of demonstrating the post-war dominance of French artistry and French taste. Aside from being a national gesture of using art as part of a conflict arrière, the Exposition fitted neatly into the financial boom of the 1920s when money flowed as freely as wine. The Great War had been a period of deprivation and sacrifice, and, by the mid-twenties, a social shift had taken place. This change in culture accompanied the artistic modifications of the avant-garde to a more platable and more purchasable tamed Cubism and the release of women and the rise of new attitudes and new life styles. Mass media, advertising, and film, spread new styles and new ideas and, in the process, created a new person: the consumer, the buyer, the individual who desired something new and attractive. Made for the modern consumer, part of a now large middle class, the Paris Fair of 1925 was an enlarged and sprawling department store.

Ticket to the Exposition

What made Art Deco “Moderne” was quite simple, it banished the curved lines of nature and ushered in the lines made with mechanical drawing instruments, meaning the circle or a curve was allowed as long it was clearly machine made. Like the radical modern, Art Deco looked back to the past but in a different way. Le Corbusier meticulously traced his architectural theories and, consequently, his architecture, to the rationalism of the classical age of Louis XIV. The trajectory of the modern was a straight progressive line, based on the logic of a teleological purification. Art Deco was more rooted in the eighteenth-century sense of the decorative among the aristocrats, who prized high elegance and accepted the motifs of other cultures filtered through a French sensibility. In addition to the telescoping of the past and present, the old and the new, Art Deco also became the style in which new technological advances, from cars to radios, expressed their novel modernity. Writing for ArchDaily, Luke Fiederer said,

During its six month run, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs attracted roughly sixteen million visitors, creating massive international demand for the style to which it ultimately lent its name. In accordance with the organizer’s aims, the Exposition also established France as the arbiter of taste and fashion in the interwar era; Paris itself was put on display as the world’s most fashionable city. But the ramifications of the Exposition Internationale would spread far beyond Paris. Though several similar world’s fairs would follow in subsequent years (including two more in Paris in 1931 and 1937), none would have such a resounding impact as the one which took place in 1925. Time would eventually move past the frenzy of Art Deco that followed the 1925 Exposition, giving way to Modernism in the wake of the Second World War – but no single event would ever have such a profound effect on global design sensibilities ever again.

Because of its dominance in consumer goods, ranging from ash trays to fashion to rugs to liquor cabinets, Art Deco became the style of choice for the interwar generation, the Jazz Age, Les années folles, the decade of the Flapper, the decadence of the Lost Generation. The embeddedness of Art Deco in a consumer culture is significant because the “modern” of radical architecture and furnishings was embedded in a social theory of utopian socialism with the goal—not only of providing pleasure but also of providing pre-fabricated affordable housing furnished with affordable mass produced furniture and household objects. Therefore, there was a clear distinction between classes: pure theory based modern styles was an attempt on the part of the intellectuals to aid the working classes, but Art Deco was for the well-to-do, the sophisticated members of high society who could afford superfluous luxury goods and could afford to buy beauty for beauty’s sake.

Crowds at the Exposition

In fact, Grace Glueck of The New York Times scorned the style: “…Art Deco — a conservative but catchy fusion of earlier neo-classical styles like Louis XVI and Empire laced with Cubism, Futurism and late Art Nouveau — was all the rage. Sumptuous materials were its hallmark..” The art critic was making a larger point that the Fair woke up, not just America, but the rest of the world to the lucrative significance of design. More importantly, it could be added that art and design had become a modern mode of manifesting an international presence. The Americans, feeling that the nation had nothing of note to offer to the Parisians, turned down the invitation to participate, but observers were present, taking mental notes, as it were, and by the end of the decade, an American version of Art Deco would manifest itself in the skyscrapers now rising from the bedrock of Manhattan Island.

After the Great War, by the 1920s it was clear that much of the pre-war avant-garde, the bright colors of Fauvism, the sharp edges of Cubism, the fascination for speed from Futurism and the strong designs of Orphism, the exoticism of the Ballets Russes, and the fanciful dresses of Paul Poiret had been absorbed into the visual culture and had been disgorged as applied art. While the theme of the 1925 Fair was supposedly a form of industrial design, the actual standard for admission was simply “new inspiration and real originality,” encouraging artisan objects rather than manufactured objects. Stressing spectacle and focusing on glamour, the Exposition re-centered France as the capital of luxury goods and was what we today would term “feel good,” a sensation greatly valued after a terrible War. The Germans, invited belatedly, did not make an appearance but history shows that the Bauhaus machine-inspired industrial designs would consign the luxury style of Art Deco to historical dust. Art Deco was fated to suffer the fate of “style,” its day would pass; but the Bauhaus designers offered more than a style–they offered a lifestyle, one that would define the “modern.”

But the future was not known in 1925, and, despite its generational loss in the war, France asserted itself as the national leader among nations in modern style and cutting edge design. Absent dissenting voices from Germany or America, France reigned supreme. Designer Maurice Dufrène created the Rue des Boutiques along the Pont Alexandre III, providing a strip mall for consumer goods. The publicity for the event announced, “The new art has created a new artist.” This new artist is described as an “ensemblier” who, as the writer stated, “Is not a technician but a designer who has studied all the arts and all the crafts going into the composition of the interior.” Many of these new artists were connected to the major department stores in Paris, each of which was represented by their own Pavilions, underlining the Fair’s unabashed commercialism. This analysis comes from Simon Dell who wrote an important essay on “The Consumer and the Making of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes , 1907–1925” in 1999. The essay highlights the significance of the many pavilions built by the French to showcase their wares, allowing the objects to be displayed in domestic or department store type settings, exhibited to their best advantage, with the intention of arousing the desire to purchase in the hearts of the consumer. Dell pointed out that the Fair exhibited a significant shift from simply making or producing artifacts to what he termed “the presentation of consumption.”

Louis Cartier and Maurice Couët. Clock (white jade, onyx, diamonds, coral, mother of pearl, gold)

The genius of the designer as one who produced an assemblage or a total work of art meant that the well-heeled consumer had to move into an Art Deco home, furnished with new Art Deco furnishings from floor to ceiling and was required to wear coordinating fashions. The word for the Exposition was “ensemble.” The visitor should be consumed with desire for the new, not just one desire but a series of cascading and interlocking desires that led the viewer, soon to the be consumer, from one created “need” to another. This combination of retail and art was potent. The designs by the artists-craftspeople were so beautiful and exquisitely made they were simply irresistible. There was a psychological aspect to the elegant pavilions, their seductive way of presenting objects clearly proffered to the affluent–the mode of installation and display made people imagine themselves through design. Donning an Art Deco dress or sitting down at an Art Deco desk or purchasing an Art Deco lamp became part of a self-fashioning of a persona: the consumer was expressing him or herself through the acquisition of objects of desire. It is important to think of the Exposition as an exercise in mass social education. The middle class was being knitted into the fabric of the upper class and its tastes in order to create a knowledgeable buyer and consequently a reliable customer. The goal of this consumer was not just to purchase a luxury item or indeed to express him or herself through consumption, rather the end point of the project was to demonstrate what Pierre Bourdieu termed “distinction,” the ability to distinguish oneself from those who were not “in the know.” As Bourdieu stated,

Consumption is, in this case, a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or ex­plicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense, one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception. A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded. The conscious or unconscious implemen­tation of explicit or implicit schemes of perception and appreciation which constitutes pictorial or musical culture is the hidden condition for recognizing the styles characteristic of a period, a school or an author, and, more generally, for the familiarity with the internal logic of works that aesthetic enjoyment presupposes. A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, with­ out rhyme or reason.

In his important book, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in 1979, Bourdieu stressed the “aristocracy of culture” as signified by a grasp of “culture” that could be “symbolized.” This symbolic culture was manifested as a displayed knowledge of how to comport oneself, how to act, how to speak, how to move through the world with what he called “habitus.” For Bourdieu, this “habitus” is part of the class structure or the social system which divides classes, not so much by economic differences but by an understanding of social codes or the ability to read crucial signals. If, as Bourdieu, pointed out, one lacks the ability to recognize the “codes,” one revealed through ignorance that one did not belong. This innate class knowledge, once granted on to those born into a certain social sphere, was now for sale at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Horrified by the appearance of the new style, eventually called Art Deco, Le Corbusier preached, “Trash is always abundantly decorated; the luxury object is well made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture.” Not only was the architect echoing Loos, he was also channeling William Morris who decried the false ornamentation of manufactured products for the middle-class home. Over fifty years later, Le Corbusier observed that the cheap consumer goods were festooned with elaborations while the truly elegant objects were clean simple designs that need nothing more than their pure form. The “Decorative is disguise,” he proclaimed. In keeping with Loos, Le Corbusier also assumed that design, like art, would evolve from a state of impurity—that is decoration—to a state of purity—that is the objet-type or the rational object. In representing the theories of the modern, Le Corbusier was alone—Germany refused to participate, complaining of the late arrival of an invitation, and America, the recognized home of the industrial and the mechanical, declined, stating a lack of development in the decorative arts. Only the Russian Pavilion could match the edginess of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau as an example of functionalism and constructivism. But in terms of proselytizing in the French language, the Swiss architect became the main bulwark against creeping impurity. Art Deco, which took modern shapes and forms and repurposed them as a new décor, was, in his view “the final spasm of a predictable death.”

Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau

In some ways, his prediction was correct for the unadorned work of architecture or stripped down object became identified as “modern,” while Art Deco had to wait decades before being recognized as a style in its own right, not a “fallen” version of modernism. A style of luxury, targeting connoisseurs prone to avant-garde aspirations, Art Deco or Art Moderne, was simply erased after the history of the interwar era was written after World War II. In its own time, however, Art Deco ushered in a new age of commercialism and commodities, announcing a new style that swept away Art Nouveau which demanded a new wave of redecorating to conform with the age of the automobile. Like its more serious and theoretical cousin, modernism, Art Deco insisted that art must be of its own time, but, unlike the modern style of the Bauhaus and Gropius and Mies van der Rohr or the Purism of Le Corbusier, Art Deco evoked an ethnic and historic mix of references.

Post card of the Eiffel Tower at Night

If Le Corbusier had visited the Fair at night, he would have been treated to the sight of the Eiffel Tower, normally unadorned, decked out like a Christmas tree with some 200,000 light bulbs if six different colors that were coordinated to create different light shows, including the logo of the sponsor, Citroën. The prominent position of the automobile company looming over Paris might explain why Citroën was not interested in sponsoring Le Corbusier’s Pavillion. The plan to hold an exhibition based on the machine predated the Great War when French critic Roger Marx said in 1909 that such an event would “bring to an end the scorn to which the machine has been subjected, and end the longstanding antagonism between architects and engineers..” The real story of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the famous pavilions, the stylish containers of objects of desire, bound inside of Art Deco styled buildings that were–alas–temporary, where the consumer could be overwhelmed by a desire to possess. The next post will discuss these elegant pavilions.

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

Thank you.

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


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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Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.


Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

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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Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory


Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

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

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

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

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

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

[email protected]

Postmodernism in Photography


Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, The Middle Brow Art, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. Even in its virginal state, photography was also impacted by the fact of the “Image World.” As Guy Debord explained it in The Society of the Spectacle,the world had become a “spectacle.”

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

Therefore, contemporary visual culture was, by definition, a spectacle disseminated though photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed. Through photography, visual culture had become part of the spectacle of popular culture that fascinated its audience and hypnotized them from critiquing society and created a certain kind of social relation. As Debord said, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When Debord’s influential book was published in France in 1967, the vernacular photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander had exhausted itself. The innocence that had allowed photographer or the audience to assume that direct photography was a reliable form of “truth” was crumbling on the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War.

In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.

By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.

Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. The Rephotographic Survey beginning in the 1970s is an example of the postmodern attitude towards the act of photographing by rephotographing the already photographed. The artists participating in this project, Mark Klett, Rick Dingus and Linda Conner, meticulously followed in the footsteps of 19th century photographers of the West, re-photographing the famous photographs: photography about photography. Part of the research of this group was to revisit famous sites in the West, first photographed on Survey excursions by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, was to take note of the changes over the century. But in the process they discovered that the supposed documentation was actually manipulated by O’Sullivan who produced near abstract images through cropping his prints and/or tilting his camera.

Postmodernism is characterized by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.

All Postmodern theory can do is to point out that gender is constructed by the culture and by mass media. Unlike early feminism of the 1970s, post-feminism is not essentialist but is constructivist, maintaining that there is no such thing as a “women” only an image that is created by ideology and is named “woman” by the culture. Sherman’s Film Stills are pure simulacra: there is no “woman,” there is only the image of woman. A film is an image of an image of a woman. A film still is an image of a woman of an image of a woman of an image of a woman. Simulacra is a “third order” of “reality,” meaning that a simulacra is three moves away from a reality that never existed in the first place. Because Sherman performs a variety of female roles, playing the woman for a male audience, she should be considered a performance artist who photographs her work, rather than as a traditional photographer.

Sherman was not the only photographer to stress the importance of performance and artifice in Modernism, present in Western art since Édouard Manet. Like Sherman, Jeff Wall uses intertextuality by reenacting significant “major monuments” of Modernist art through the Postmodern art of manipulated photography. One of the early users of computer manipulation, Wall, like Sherman, is less a “photographer” in the classical sense, and actually works in the “directorial mode.” His actors perform for Wall in staged photographs representations Manet and Degas and Cézanne. His recreations are subtle. For example The Destroyed Room refers to Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and After Ralph Ellison, showing an African-American man, his back turned to the viewer, is lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, but he remains invisible. Because he is referring to invented works of art, in addition to staging and directing, Wall must manipulate photography. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall uses the computer to throw white sheets of paper into the stiff breeze, combining postmodern technology with the past. Like most Postmodern artists, Postmodern photographers re-explore the past and revisit history. As Wall said in 2010:

In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.

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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Manet and the Nude


“The leading characteristic of our century is its historical sense.

This is why we have to confine ourselves to relating the facts.”

Gustave Flaubert, 1854

“The wind blows in the direction of science.

Despite ourselves, we are pushed toward the exact study of facts and things.”

Emile Zola, Salon of 1866

“Il faut être de son temps.”

Honoré Daumier

Unlike his predecessor, Gustave Courbet who carefully directed the critical discourse around his art, Édouard Manet was far more taciturn. When he spoke, it was in fragments, causal remarks, rarely buttressed by explanations about his paintings. Against this silence, art historians constructed many frameworks for understanding. First there is Manet the Formalist, as put forward by Clement Greenberg, as the progenitor of Modernism. Next, there was the Manet of the Marxists, put forward by writers such as T. J. Clark, followed by Manet of the feminists, such as Griselda Pollock, and then there was the Manet examined by the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. There is validity to all of these approaches, each illuminating the complex artist who ushered the modernité of his friend, Charles Baudelaire, into the world of avant-garde art. How Manet created a final rupture between the modern realists and the traditional Academy is less interesting than why. What were his strategies of attack, what were his tactics of provocation?

Manet, who was a child of privilege, born to a comfortable, even wealthy, haute bourgeois family, was typical of the rebellious son of a professional—-supported in his rebellion and cushioned in his insurrection by his father’s fortune. Manet was never a successful artist, in the sense of sales, during his lifetime. His financial independence would be crucial to his artistic independence. He could afford, quite literally, to take risks and to continue without reward. Part of the dominant class, Manet had no particular reason to destroy the bourgeois source of his position, and he never stopped vying for recognition in the Salon, always needing the rewards doled out by the State. The artist was less of a rebel than a careerist, seeking a way to get noticed among a crowded field of aspirants. The career of Gustave Courbet provided an excellent model: find your crowd of supporters among art critics and writers of the literary world, create a recognizable persona, and attract attention to your art through shock and awe. Like the career of Courbet, the paintings of Édouard Manet cannot be understood without acknowledging the power of the press and the importance of publicity and the new avenues that mass media opened up to the artist.

The Second Empire was a peaceful period, marked by intellectual cynicism and resignation, following a failed revolution. Open rebellions would fail, rebels caught in the crossfire would get crushed, so the smart move was to retreat to the safety of intellectual dissent. Literary and artistic language evolved into a subtle network of overt condemnation of the hated middle class and its self-satisfied complacency. The direct confrontation of a Courbet gave way to the visual ambiguities of a Manet. Courbet’s paintings were battering rams on the barred gates of the Academy, intended to break in and to reform the wrong-headed taste for the classical. Manet, with impeccable credentials, direct from his long tutelage under the fine academic artist, Thomas Couture, was already an insider. His task was not to storm the barricades but the find a way out of the fortress of the Academy. Manet inherited a group of literary supporters from the avant-garde, such as Emile Zola, and the ready-made role of “the Dandy,” popularized by Baudelaire. Handsome, elegant, well-dressed, and cynical man about town, Manet succeeded Courbet as the leader of the insurrectionists. But Manet was a very different kind of “Realist.”

It could be asked if Manet’s work was the Naturalism of his literary counterparts, Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. According to the critic Jules Castagnary, “…its (Naturalism) only object is to reproduce nature and lead it to its greatest power and integrity…the Naturalist school reestablishes the severed relationship between man and nature…” Far more than any other artist of his time, Manet was a link between the tradition of historical painting and the need to paint new objects in a new fashion. Less of a history painter and more than a painter of the history of painting, Manet’s representational mode was not that of copying nature but of observing human nature with a shrewd and jaundiced eye. His highly stylized subjects were presented to the viewer, and this audience—assumed to be white, male and heterosexual and urbane and wealthy—was taken into account and the male viewer was drawn visually and metaphorically into his works. Like his predecessor, Courbet, and his teacher, Thomas Couture, Manet’s work is pastiche-like in its collage approach to putting together many elements, which may or may not fit together.

This pictoral collaging of flattened units, so evident with Courbet, becomes almost a conceit with Manet. Echoing Courbet’s mockery of the rhetoric of academic poses, seen in The Bathers (1853), Manet exploited the customary practice of putting academic poses and postures together into huge history paintings, as was seen in Courture’s Romans of the Decadence (1847). Manet extended the convention of academic visual discourse to its logical extreme, by exposing its inherent artificiality. In the face of Naturalism and Realism, Manet’s works of art were about other earlier works of art, high and low, serious and commonplace, historical and current. The result was a series of anti-academic paintings that pushed the Romantic dictum of “art-for-art’s sake” to its logical conclusion, making the artistic statement that art is an artificial product, a cultural artifact that is about reality but that does not mirror reality. If art is severed from its traditional task of reflecting the world and/or being in the service of society, then art has no purpose other than an existential one: art existed for its own sake alone.

In The Rules of Art (1992), the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, made a distinction between the successive avant-gardes in Paris: the first avant-garde in of the 1830s, the original la bohème, and the second avant-garde, which engendered the collaboration between the artists and the writers, such as the partnership between Courbet and Champfleury. The last avant-garde, according to Bourdieu was the art-for-art’s-sake position, held by Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert and carried on by Édouard Manet. The difference between Courbet’s socially active art and Manet’s socially apolitical art can be summed up in the difference between Courbet the Country Bumpkin and Manet the Dandy. The Country Bumpkin was a construct in contrast to the sophisticated Parisian, while the Dandy was uninvolved, aloof, alone and apart. It is this disinterested detachment that allows the new avant-garde artist to separate himself from the “rules of art” and to forge a separate path. The contrast also explains Baudelaire’s antipathy to Courbet’s politically engaged painting, which kept art in the service of society. Baudelaire selected Constantin Guys as his “painter of modern life” for a reason—Guys was an outsider who was uninterested in the art world, without a stake in the Academic game. The poet was saying very clearly that the “painter of modern life” had to be a disinterested observer of society and could not be a participant in that society, thus privileging the alienation of the artist.

For many art historians, Manet was Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life;” but the poet, who died in 1867, did not live to see his friend become successful or at least renowned. Nevertheless, it was Manet who began to capture the essence of modernité, a quality the critic called “the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present day life…” La vie moderne was based in the city, the heart of darkness of the century, a place of anomie and indifference. Wiped clean of anecdote and symbolism and of meaning, Manet’s art becomes a synedoche, a slice of life but a very particular kind of life. Like his friend, Edgar Degas, Manet was a man about town who knew well the pleasures of the boulevards and brothels and cafés and cabarets and bars. Life in Paris had a duality and a hypocrisy: a bourgeoisie respectability on one hand and an underground, Baudelaire’s “floating existences,” of marginalized people living on the fringes of respectability or far beyond social redemption. In Manet’s art, as in Courbet’s later works, women were the main commodities of the era. Forced into prostitution by economic conditions beyond their control, women were bought and sold, everywhere available to the highest male bidder. Women, or to be more precise, the “fallen woman,” became the visual images upon which the Second Empire depicted itself as the all-consuming bourgeois male in power.

Did Manet reiterate the conditions of this male-dominated society to simply record, or to comment, or to critique, or to scandalize the male viewer? From viewing his works, it seems that the hero of modern life in the Second Empire was a man with money to spend on women, a member of the haute bourgeoisie who pursues the dubious pleasures of the demi-mondaine. The artist occupied the protected position of an observer who could slum and escape, retreating to the sanctity of the studio where his adventures could be captured. But the presence of a suffering urban proletariat in the works of Edouard Manet cannot be considered a critique. Their misery is presented as a simple accepted fact, which is ironically manipulated through the lenses of art history. The Old Musician (1862) is a pendant to Music in the Tuileries (1862), as an implied contrast between the lower and upper classes. The Old Musician borrowed from Spanish painting and from the works of the Le Nain Brothers, while Music in the Tuileries was an artist’s attempt to paint the crowd—albeit an upper class one—in the modern city. Both paintings are group portraits of urban types, but Manet’s lower class people–the ragpicker and the destitute children and the old people–were overwhelmed with allegory and appropriation, used for the artist to mock the tradition for history painting. The presence of the lower classes, displaced by Haussmann’s destruction of the Old Paris, was entirely new subject matter in the Salon. But any social comment was absorbed into elitist allusions to the history of art, appealing to the well-educated male connoisseur as a series of insider commentary.

But the pair of paintings took their place only as preludes for the seminal works of 1863, two paintings of the “modern nude,” who could only be the prostitute. The urban poor, inherently unattractive, quickly disappeared from Manet’s work, and attractive women of ill-repute emerged as his major preoccupation by the mid 1860s. These women, who could be owned by males, were presented with a specifically masculine way of looking: a proprietorial gaze, which implies unmediated and unquestioned power. As John Berger remarked, men look and women are constructed to be looked at. The only clue to Manet’s intentions as to why he painted (Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe) Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, both of 1863, is that the “nude,” by now always female, was the path to fame and fortune in the Salon. Manet is said to have signed and accepted the inevitable—-to become noticed, he had to stoop to hackneyed subjects. “It seems I must paint a nude. Very well,” he said, “I shall paint one.” The question was how to update the female nude? Manet was clear that he meant to include “…people like you see down there,” meaning that he was familiar with the people who bathed in the Seine. These would have been the urban poor who had no other recourse for cleanliness or recreation than the city’s river. Manet was also familiar with Giorgione’s Fête champêtre (1508), a country or rustic scene with a theme of humans living in harmony with nature. Apparently, Manet combined the ideal rustic scene with the actual and current way in which ordinary people used nature.

“The public will rip me to shreds but they can say what they like…” Manet said bravely. We know that after he was “ripped,” he felt considerable pain but received no sympathy from Baudelaire who was dying in Belgium and blooded by the Empire’s censors. Manet began a painting named Le Bain, which could be thought of as the beginning of his mature career. His father had died the year before (of syphilis) in 1862, freeing the son to be his own man. Updating the nude meant not only making the nude a contemporary one but also to free the nude from symbolism and metaphor and allegory. The woman most likely to have a kind of “public” nudity would be the prostitute. The strategy had to be to mask the inherent vulgarity of the prostitute and to avoid the impropriety of presenting the respectable woman by using canonical art historical examples from past times. In the painting, later renamed Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe, Manet appropriated Giorgione and Titian and Goya and Raphael and mined their art for poses, precedents and legitimacy. By filtering the nakedness of the modern woman through art history, Manet escaped the trap of Naturalism, that of passively recording reality. These paintings were artificial and arbitrary and willful in their irony and sarcasm. While Manet’s work seems satirical, the paintings were also a gamble, as if he bet everything on one throw of the dice. His goal was probably to be noticed among a sea of earnest and pornographic female nudes, disguised as goddesses.

Courbet’s success owed a great deal to the open Salon of 1848 which allowed him to summarize and end the first stage of his career and to the Salon of 1849, juried by artists, which allowed his Dinner at Ornans to be shown and awarded a second-class medal. Manet’s success would equally hinge on politics, this time on art politics. Manet had hoped to soften up the jury by preempting their judgment with a show of is new works at the Louis Martinet gallery. As would often happen, Manet’s hopes for public acceptance were dashed and the Salon jury was no better disposed towards his work. The jury for the Salon of 1863 was unusually harsh, an outcome during the censorious Second Empire, which meant that the level of rejection was nothing short of extreme. Deprived of the right to be seen and, thus of the right to earn a living, the rejected artists protested so much that the Emperor intervened and ordered a second salon, the famous Salon des Refusés of 1863. Many artists simply slunk away, not wanting to exhibit with the losers, but the more opportunistic painters, such as Manet and his friend, James Whistler, participated. The Salon des Refusés overshadowed the Salon of the Accepted Ones, and the two artists were the most scandalous painters presenting. To paraphrase Flaubert, now that Manet was attacked, he now existed in the minds of the art public, which was primed and ready to be horrified at his next offering, Olympia, another modern nude, at the Salon of 1865. “I render as simply as possible the things I see. What could be more naïve than Olympia?Manet protested, perhaps a bit disingenuously.

By layering Le Dejeunner sur l’herbe with references to two paintings by Raphael, to Giorgione’s Fête Competre, to Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, and Olympia with quotations from Titian and Goya, Manet seemed to ask why couldn’t he be allowed to do the same kind of art as his predecessors? But his art was not the same. Manet did more than Michel Foucault claimed when he remarked that the artist was the first to paint a “museum painting,” that is a painting that would be comprehensible only to the art educated public. The paintings Manet borrowed from were all set in poetic spaces, not in real time or in real places. Only Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the model for Olympia, was contemporary, a private commission, about as high-minded as Courbet’s The Sleepers. But Titian’s “Venus” was demurely distanced from the kind of provocative modernité demonstrated by Manet. Titian’s painting was a private offering to a princely patron; Manet’s paintings were public assaults, exposing the sexual pastimes of the well-heeled male, indiscretions to which the law turned a blind eye. That willed blindness was pierced by the strident gaze of Manet’s model, the high-priced courtesan watchfully regarding the male interloper, who had apparently interrupted a sexual tryst. The tactic of breaking through the “fourth wall” of the picture plane predicted the theatrical practices of Berthold Brecht—-the direct address of the actor to the audience, the refusal to accept the rules of virtual reality. By forcing the Second Empire audience to become part of its own sordid hidden lives, Manet achieved his intention to “do the nude” and to become noticed. Scandal equaled success and established Manet’s reputation as the leader of the new avant-garde, and freed him from conventional subject matter. But Modernité would not be the conflation of art history and art present, but the capture of all that was contingent and fleeting, the ephemeral drifting fragments of Paris: the next stage of Manet’s career.

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

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

[email protected]

The Definition of the Avant-Garde


Theory of the Avant-Garde

In his book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Peter Bürger stressed the historical basis of the avant-garde. The rise of the avant-garde was directly linked to the rise of the middle class and its allegiance to capitalism and commodification. The main role of the avant-garde is the critique of the middle class by detaching it self from it. Bourgeois totalizing institutions, such as the institutions that are the “art world” must also be critiqued and defied. The kind of critique Bürger discussed was a Marxist style critique, which, because it was delivered from a detached perspective, was far more radical than conventional criticism. The Marxist approach was, of course Kantian in origin in its stance of disinterest, but Marxist in its focus on bourgeois practices. The founding generation of the avant-garde in France are undoubtedly unknown and only the successful artists, such as Gustave Flaubert, left a mark on history. Even those who were successful lived within their own times, more of less aware of their avant-garde endeavors but unable to speak to future generations. In the absence of direct testimony, writers of the avant-garde one hundred years later were theorists.

There seemed to be two levels of avant-garde reactions in the artistic communities in the nineteenth century, that of rebellion against the prevailing order, whether the establishment or the the public, or reaction against the sudden surge of modern capitalism which turned making art into merely another way of making a living. According to these theories, such as those of Bürger, the avant-garde artist took a separatist stance, neither part of the bourgeoisie from whence he came nor part of the establishment he so desperately longs to recognize him. Most theories do not stress the fact that we would not even have a concept of the avant-garde if certain artists had not “crossed over” into the realm of the establishment where they were finally “seen.” Most avant-garde artists were avant-garde because they were unknown, not because they wanted to be ignored and scorned. But according to the theories of the avant-garde, the radicality of the avant-garde position rests upon its freedom from having to “take sides” or obligation to maintain a position. For Bürger, the freedom to detach from an ideology is also the freedom to find an entirely unexpected stance, meaning that the artist is engaged in a critical analysis of society. The avant-garde critique of the capitalist mode of production and its impact upon cultural producers, artists, has many consequences.

First, the avant-garde artist is always alienated from the audience, outside the mainstream of traditional art and scornful of the middle class and its utilitarian preferences. The bourgeoisie saw little use for pure art in the service of the intellect or beauty or aesthetics, and understood only that art could be useful to reinforce their own social and political power, a lesson learned from the once powerful church and state. The middle class audience was unsympathetic with art, except as entertainment, and uninterested in avant-garde which lay outside what was familiar, traditional and recognizable. Thus, the artist, who felt constrained by bourgeois restrictions and by the low level of middle class taste, took on a defiant, rebellious stance, upholding the right of the artist to express him/herself artistically. Delighting in shocking the art public, the avant-garde artist was, according to romantic legend, confrontational, refusing to meet the expectations of the middle class audience. Instead of striving for acceptance, the avant-garde artist remains outside and alienated in order to critique middle class values, which placed money above love, status above mercy, work above play, and matter over mind.

Avant-garde art, in challenging middle class pragmatism also challenged middle class power. Often this art directly or indirectly exposed middle class hypocrisy. Gustave Courbet routinely catered to the bourgeois male’s desire for soft-core pornography and Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas depicted the thriving sex trade of mid nineteenth century Paris fueled by the insatiable urban male with some disposable income. Sunny and beautiful on the surface, many Impressionist paintings actually depicted well-known meeting places of scandalous encounters between prostitutes and their clients. Although today the meaning of these paintings may be lost on today’s viewers, the audience of the day was fully aware that the subjects of these artists were less than respectable. Starting with the proto-Romanticism of Jean-Antoine Gros and Théodore Géricault, the reality of current events were used to confront the public with the unpalatable truth, as shown by Gustave Courbet, or simply with ordinary every day life, as displayed by the Impressionists.

The activity of critique–critique of the system–places the avant-garde artist outside of conventional ways of thinking. But this artist is also in front of the crowd in finding new modes of expressing the unexpressed and the unrealized and thus is making the future of art. Or so we are told. The first separation between the art and that public within the art world can be seen during the Romantic period when certain artists began to represent current events. This shift to reality, as seen in the frozen corpses at the bottom of Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1807), was an important one. Previously, the Neoclassical approach was an allegorical one, making statements about the present by using past events or using ancient examples to teach lessons for the present. The split between the ancients and the moderns is not simply a stylistic one, from the linear to the painterly, but most significantly, from the past to the present. The avant-garde artists refused to look back to a past that was increasingly irrelevant and insisted upon recording the present. Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) was perceived, not so much as a heroic rendering of a major event in recent French history, but as a political statement valorizing rebellious uprisings. Delacroix himself, like his avant-garde friends, George Sand and Frédéric François Chopin, was inherently conservative and terrified of the revolution he captured. Compared to Neoclassicism, which displaced politics to the past, Romanticism and Realism, were political in that these movements simply in presenting the present. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the avant-garde had become political and dangerous to the established powers.

In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists were totally separated from the mainstream art world. The art world in France and England had become splintered into factions: the very conservative, the conservative or official art, the conservative avant-garde, and the radical avant-garde. For example, the Salon des Indépendants was conservative compared to the Salon d’automne. Avant-garde artists were completely isolated from mainstream art audiences and these artists followed the lead of the Impressionists and relied more and more upon sympathetic art dealers and understanding collectors for survival. The audience for the avant-garde artists was very small, often consisting of art critics, who were crucial in writing the first accounts of indecipherable art, and each other, an audience of producers. Well into the twentieth century it was the mainstream conservative academic artists were the famous and the well-known and the successful among most of the public in France. Only in the twentieth century, after the Great War did the pre-war avant-garde become accepted and their art become admired.

Jules Alexandre Grun. Friday at the French Artists’ Salon (1911)

The so-called “difficult” art, from Impressionism to Cubism, was made by an artist, who was outside of official art and beyond public approval. Avant-garde art tended to engender yet another generation of art, even more difficult and even more isolated, in reaction to the previous movement. For example, Manet was part of the academic system and strove all his life to be celebrated in the Salons, but his follower Claude Monet opted to take an independent path and exhibit in private capitalist exhibitions outside of the Salon, while was his colleague, Paul Cézanne, lived the second part of his artistic life exiled in Aix but was studied by the Cubists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso and Braque were not typical of the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. Working alone and unrecognized, they were supported by their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and they did not exhibit in public salons. Living in dire poverty, these two artists, like other avant-garde artists, were totally dedicated to their vision and to their belief in their art, a condition made possible by the support of their dealer. Art historians depicted these artists as “heroes,” struggling to maintain personal and artistic integrity in the face of a life without honor and success, understood only by those educated few. That said, it is difficult to maintain the anti-capitalist stance of the theorists of the avant-garde, given the clearly capitalist underpinnings of the avant-garde and its aspirations–to get a dealer and to find patrons and to sell their art. As shall be seen, at the time, the heroes of Cubism were not Picasso and Braque but the Salon Cubists who bravely exposed their innovative work in public salons. The judgment that Braque and Picasso were “leaders” was historical and anachronistic, not in keeping with the actual conditions of the time.

The emergence of the avant-garde artists and the theory of “art-for-art’s sake” coincided with the early decades of the nineteenth century. If the avant-garde was a French notion then the idea of making “art-for-art’s sake” was German. Due to historical and economic forces, the avant-garde and philosophical theories of aesthetics were dependent upon one another: through the idea of “art-for-art’s sake,” artists, now estranged from the art audience, had a philosophical reason for separation. The avant-garde artist, usually of a young generation that had not yet made its mark, did not want to or could not continue to make already established art. The public did not approve of either the style or the content of avant-garde art, and in order to defend and explain this new art, the art critics who supported the avant-garde artists often put forward an appeal for a formalist reading. When Emile Zola demanded that Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) be understood in terms of its stylistic innovation, the writer was also insisting that the viewer look away from the often scandalous and socially critical subject matter of a high class prostitute and take note of the way in which the artist handled the formal elements. Looking at art from a formal and/or disinterested perspective required a new kind of “eye.” The purpose of avant-garde art was, by necessity an aesthetic one. But as Pierre Bourdieu explained in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996),

Although it appears to itself like a gift of nature, the eye of the nineteenth-century art-lover is the product of history…the pure gaze capable of apprehending the work of art as it demands to be apprehended (in itself and for itself, as form and not as function) is inseparable from the appearance of producers motivated by a pure artistic intention, itself indissociable from the emergence of an autonomous artistic field capable of posing and imposing its own goals in the face of external demands and it is also inseparable from the corresponding appearance of a population of ‘amateurs’ or ‘connoisseurs’ capable of applying to the works thus produced the ‘pure’ gaze which they call for.

Although, as Bourdieu contends, the avant-garde was created as much by material forces as by aesthetic ideals, the avant-garde would have been impossible without the theory of “art-for-art’s sake.”

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French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde


Art and the Avant-Garde

The term “avant-garde” is a military one, borrowed from the French phrase, denoting the advance body of the army. This small group of soldiers goes out in advance of the main group to scout the territory beyond with the aim of reporting back as to the conditions awaiting the other soldiers. In American parlance, these soldiers are called “F.O’s” or forward observers, and they account for the highest casualty rate, for they are always on the line and out in front. The artists that are historically considered the avant-garde were also “out in front of” the main body of more conservative artists and the recalcitrant public, putting their careers and their lives on the line in order to find new ways of making art. As Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde put it,

…the avant-garde…functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own…

The avant-garde as a conscious and deliberate artistic activity was mainly a mid to late Nineteenth Century phenomenon, probably pioneered by the Impressionists who intentionally refused to placate public taste and who deliberately exhibited work outside of the expected channels of the large and popular public Salon exhibitions. According to Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996), the avant-garde was a sociological situation, born of rising middle class aspirations and the inability of the culture to satisfy talented people and their ambitions. The Academy controlled entrée to school art school training and had the power to grant access to the Salon. Although the intention of the academically minded juries may have been to maintain the high level of quality in art, the effect was to restrict economic opportunity, forcing artists outside of the system. As Bourdieu said,

…bohemia…grows numerically and as its prestige (or mirages) attracts destitute young people, often of provincial and working-class origin, who around 1848 dominate the ‘second bohemia.’ In contrast to the romantic dandy of the ‘golden bohemia’ of the rue de Doyené, the bohemia of Murger, Chapmpfleury or Duranty constitutes a veritable intellectual reserve army, directly subject to the laws of the market and often obliged to live off a second skill…in order to live an art that cannot make a living.

The avant-garde grew out of a group of creative people who gravitated to Paris and lived in low-income quarters, suffering from neglect and poverty. Outside the mainstream and lacking the outlets that would have perhaps earned them a living, these artists and writers could only gather together and form an ideology of failure. They had failed, they consoled themselves, because they were so “advanced” that the unenlightened public misunderstood them. Simply put, their art was too good, too “avant.” Success was inverted into an indictment of failure and failure was transformed into a badge of honor. It is doubtful that these defiant members of the avant-garde were particularly talented or gifted, for there were member of La Boheme who were quite successful, such as George Sand and Eugène Delacroix. But the formula was high-minded and allowed those who never made a breakthrough an honorable cover for their failure. The avant-garde artist, then, was a mythic creature who was not appreciated or understood by the masses, one who chose to live and work in obscurity and poverty, believing that one day his/her art would be recognized by an educated art audience either in the near present or in some unforeseeable future.

Savvy and strategic Bohemian artists fueled the myth of the avant-garde by shocking the a public that was very easy to shock. The rallying cry of the avant-garde was, “Épater le bourgeoisie!” but the idea was to gain attention, not to repel collectors. Avant-garde artists needed to make a living and used the unexpected as a strategy to shock and awe the crowd. By mid-century the term was an old one. In Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987) the writer Matei Calinescu, traced the idea of the avant-garde in France back to radical revolutionary politics: is safe to say that the actual career of the term avant-garde was started in the after man of the French Revoluion, when it acquired undisputed political over ones. I am referring to L’Avant-garde de l’armée des Pyrenées orientals, a journal that appeared in 1794 and whose watchword–engraved on the blade of an emblematic sword–was “La liberté ou la mort.” This journal was committed to the defense of Jacobin ideas and was intended to reach, beyond military circles, a broader audience of “patriots.” We can therefore take the 1700s as a starting point for the subsequent career of the concept of the avant-garde in radical political is, therefore, not by chance that the romantic use of avant-garde in a literary-artistic context was directly derived from the language of revolutionary politics.

Calinescu asserted that the modern us of an old military term was linked by 1825 to the arts by socialist philosopher, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), in his book De l’organization sociale (1825) in which the writer designated the artist as the standard bearer for the future. His follower, Olinde Rodrigues stated, “It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant-garde, the power of the arts is indeed he most immediate and the fastest.” Without the church and state and their once limitless funds, without the taste and sophistication of the aristocrats, the artists were faced with the middle class as their main audience. This was an audience that wanted to be entertained and were treated by the artists to large paintings that were precursors to modern day movies—-the grand machines or huge paintings that enthralled them with exciting stories.

The new audience was composed of the masses, high and low, average people, undereducated, unsophisticated, but not uninterested in art. The kind of art they wanted was that which was easily accessible, easy to understand, entertaining and attractive to look at; something like today’s television programs, that reflected themselves and their interests. For many artists, this new middle class audience was no problem. For other artists, the bourgeoisie was an opportunity. Although the art viewers were trained to admire the large history paintings, the serious minded displays of ancient virtues and obscure myths were not necessarily what the public actually wanted to see.


Eugène Delacroix. Death of Sardanapalus (Salon of 1827-8)

It was easy to please the public and it was easy to displease the public. However, beguiling the allure of the avant-garde, being a leader, the risks were many and the rewards were few. It can be assumed, based upon Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the sociology of early nineteenth century Paris, that most of the most avant-garde artists, whether visual or literary or musical, lived and and died as unknown failures. Until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the avant-garde artists or the artists called “avant-garde” by art historians, played the game inside the system and were products of the academic system. Being avant-garde involved a delicate balance between “performing” shock and making one’s mark and then becoming ensconced within the system. Eugène Delacroix was the best known example of such an artist. His spectacular, spiraling out of control bloody and violent, Death of Sardanapalus, was shown in the Salon of 1827-8 in aesthetic comparison to classically structured rational classical Apotheosis of Homer by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres debuting in the same salon.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

The contrast instantly placed the artists in opposing camps where they remained, in the public’s eyes for the rest of their lives. Delacroix parlayed this and other radical paintings–radical in content, Massacre at Chios (Salon of 1824) or radical in style, The Sea at Dieppe (1852)–into a perfectly respectable official career doing murals for the Bourdon ruling family in the 1830s. Norman Bryson’s excellent analysis of these ceiling murals in the Library of the Chamber of the Deputies in the Palais Bourbon in “Desire in the Bourbon Library” a chapter in Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (1984) revealed that the artist combined Romanticism and Classicism in style and content in a cycle of mythology worthy the best of history painting. Until the end of the Second Empire, artists found success only by positioning themselves within the establishment, if only to fight against it, like Irgres and Delacroix. But as the century progressed, social and political issues became increasingly pressing, forcing the artistic gaze away from the present and towards eroticism and exoticism and the problems of contemporary times. For the avant-garde artist, the historical past was past. “Il faut être de son temps,” (“It is necessary of be of one’s time.”) the artist Honoré Daumier exclaimed. A growing number of artists sought new ways to make art, which would reflect the new modern way of life.

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Podcast Episode 1: What is “Modern?”


“Modern” is a Western and European concept and is, in effect, Eurocentric, impacting a limited part of the world. But these changes were profound and shaped the rest of the globe. Driven by technological innovations, the economy evolved from a agricultural feudal structure into a free-wheeling laisse-faire capitalism that altered the social system and rewrote philosophy. The political consequences would be profound.

What were the social, political, economic and philosophical conditions that made the “Modern” possible? The podcast discusses the four revolutions of the eighteenth century that brought about unprecedented change to the Western world: the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Social Revolution, the Political Revolution. Each revolution impacted the artists and redesigned the world of art making, resulting in a kind of art called “modern.” The result was Modern Art and the Modern Artist.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America” and “The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles”

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

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