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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Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.


Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

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

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

[email protected]

Kant and Art for Art’s Sake


Art for Art’s Sake

What was the purpose of art in the modern period? In the minds of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century philosophers, the role of art could be nothing less that to create beauty. The beautiful, for Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), is “that which without any concept is cognized as the object of necessary satisfaction.” In other words, the appropriate stance of the spectator, perceiving “beauty” is one of indifference. This indifference does not imply, as it would in the contemporary sense today, that one is uninvolved; it simply means acknowledging that the beauty possessed by the object is necessary and that the agreement as to the beauty would be universal. Paradoxically, taste is always ordered upon the indifferent, but this indifference is also the key to the recognition of the universality of beauty. The status of aesthetic judgment is not empirical but logical, based upon the powers of human reason and rationality, which excludes internal and external purposiveness or “interest.” Kant introduces purposiveness without a purpose, allowing the mind of the one who contemplates art freely thanks to an unrestricted play of the mental faculties. But what, then was the role of the artist, who was supposed to provide this play of the mental faculties?

Obviously an object dignified as “beautiful” was rare and exalted, worthy of universal agreement as to its necessary quality. As Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment, “For judging of beautiful objects as such, taste is requisite; but for beautiful art, i.e. for the production of such objects genius is requisite.” In a very famous statement, he asserted that “Genius is the talent (or natural gift) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as the innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may express the matter thus: Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives rule to art.” Kant completely understood the existence of academic art or “mechanical art,” as he termed it, which was ” a mere art of industry” and he separated the merely trained and skilled artist from the “genius.” “Genius,” he said, “can only furnish rich material for products of beautiful art; its execution and its form require talent cultivated in the schools, in order to make use of this material as will stand examination by the judgment.” Kant also insisted that the “mental powers” that constituted genius were “imagination and understanding,” asserting that “no science can teach and no industry can learn..” In other words, while the imagination must “submit” to understanding, working hard and being industrious is insufficient to produce a work of genius. Genius, Kant seemed to imply, is natural, in that it is a gift from nature fused with training. The idea of “genius” was novel one, which he set on in the section “Analytic of the Sublime,” easily the most significant section of the book.

Kant’s rather difficult book on aesthetics entered into French thought through a variety of paths, all of which greatly simplified his ideas. The phrase “art for art’s sake” is thought to have been coined by Benjamin Constant, a Swiss philosopher, a prodigy who was educated in Germany, where he learned German, before he completed his education in Scotland. Multilingual and a distinguished philosopher in his own right, Constant had the intellectual weight and temerity to cross literary swords with Kant himself on the question of lying and truth. Their discussion, taking place with the French Revolution as a backdrop, had nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics, moral positions and a just society. Oddly, this exchange between the two philosophers, one old and defensive, one young and up and coming seems to have rested upon words not written. As Slavoj Žižek wrote in Cogito and the Unconscious: Sic 2, that the German translation of Des réactions politiques (1797), the book that began the debate, was translated by Franz Cramer who added additional information: “In the German translation, the passage where Constant speaks of a ‘German philosopher’ is accompanied by a footnote in which the publisher states that Constant told him that the ‘German philosopher’ he had in mind was Kant. What is especially interesting about this case is that philosopher states that, in the work of Kant, we do not find the example to which Constant refers. However, Kant immediately replied to Constant with “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philosophical Concerns.” After quoting Constant.., Kant adds a footnote saying he remembers stating somewhere what Constant suggests, but that he does not remember where.”

Constant, compared to Kant, led an active and adventurous life, observing the French Revolution at close hand and enjoying the company of numerous women, most famously Madame Germaine de Staël with whom he had an unacknowledged daughter. He knew Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand (the rumored father of Delacroix), was acquainted with William Godwin, the companion of Mary Woolstonecroft, and, according to his biographer Dennis Wood, he was a guest for dinner “at the home of the widow of the philosophe Condorcet..” and “General Laclos, that is Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos Laclos, the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses.” The formidable intellectual couple, on and off again in their relationships, moved in the highest literary and philosophical circles in France, but that did not protect them from the wrath of Napoléon for their dual distrust of tyranny. The new ruler of France promptly expelled Madame de Staël and Constant prudently followed her to exile in Germany. With their affair long since cooled, Constant seems to have planned to leave her once she found safety but the couple arrived in Weimar where the philosopher found himself at home once again. As Wood recounted, the new exile found himself in “an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that had disappeared in France.” “Constant was in his second homeland once again, surrounded by erudition and unflagging intellectual curiosity, his morale boosted by the familiar German atmosphere of unprejudiced tolerance and enlightened attitudes.” Constant met with the major thinkers of the early nineteenth century, Göethe, Schiller, Wieland, and it is during these discussions in Weimar that the phrase “art for art’s sake” emerged, an event that Wood does not discuss but is discussed at great length by Frederick Burwick in Mimesis and Its Romantic Reflections. An Englishman, Henry Crabb Robinson, was studying in Germany and had met with the great Romantic thinkers, Göethe, Schiller, Herder, and studied under Schelling. In 1804 he met Constant and de Staël in Weimar and the two men had a conversation–recorded by both in their journals–on aesthetics. Constant had a conversation with Schiller where he contrasted French poetry to German poetry and he and Robinson seem to have conversed about the idea of art for art’s sake. It seems that Robinson had heard what Constant termed “very clever notions” or “idées très énergiques” from Schelling who had taken Kant’s Ding an sich and posited Kunst an sich, which Robinson, speaking French, translated as l’art pour l’art or perhaps it was Constant who did the translation–certain details are lost. In 1921 Rose Frances Egan quoted the precise passage from Constant’s notes: “J’ai la visite de Schiller…J’ai une conversation avec Robinson, élève de Schelling. Son travail sur l’Esthétique de Kant a des idées très energiques. L’art pour l’art, sans but, car tout but dénature l’art. Mais l’art atteint un but qu’il n’a pas.” Egan also noted that in the journals of Henry Crabb Robinson, dated even earlier in 1801, he wrote of a visit with Winckelmann, who analyzed the excellence of English writers and yet noted that they were “incapable of attaining the highest degree of excellence. A pure poet has no other end than to produce a work of art, a pure philosopher, no other end than to raise a system of elaborate truth.”

The tale of the dissemination of the now famous phrase and the seminal concept remains confused. Burwick determined that the concept but not the phrase found its way from Constant to de Staël in her famous book of 1810, De l’Allemagne, and Gene H. Bell-Villada, in Art for Art’s Sake & Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990, suggested that her knowledge of Kantian aesthetics was secondhand, gleaned from conversations. However, her book was widely read in France and it was from her writings that the ideas of Kant, Schiller, and the Schlegels arrived in France. Bell-Villada wrote that the French readership was “largely bored with the ‘rules’ of neo-classicism and was in a mood to seek out alternate literary ways.” It seems that few of Kant’s admirers in France had actually read Critique of Judgment and the next intellectual to notice the usefulness of his ideas that freed artists from “tyrannical restrictions,” as de Staël expressed it, was Victor Cousin. Cousin was the right man in France at the right time. As was pointed out, the artists were already bored with the frozen style of Neoclassicism and, as Gene H. Bell-Villada reported, “In post-Napoléonic France the philosophical field was in a sorry state..” and Cousin stepped “into this vacuum.” At the Sorbonne “Professor Cousin..gave a series of lectures based on his minimal reading of Kant–mainly in poor and incomplete Latin translations, deciphered with much clever guesswork on his part.” Even more remarkable, for today’s rigorous scholars, Cousin wrote a book, composed of simplified ideas and catch phrases gleaned from a hodge-podge of German philosophy. Cours de philsophie professée à la faculté des lettres pendant l’année 1818 sure les fondements des idées absolues du vrai, du beau et du bien, in which he said, “Il faut de la religion pour la religion de la morale pour la morale, comme de l’art pour l’art.”

In her 1921 book tracing the origin and increasing popularity of the phrase, Rose Frances Egan, pointed to Victor Hugo who was apparently familiar with the words to use them in a casual fashion,as though the idea of art having no purpose other than its own were an accepted thought: “Plutôt cent fois l’art pour l’art! Cette parole, détournée, involontairement sans doute, de son vrai sens pour les besoins de la polemique, a pris plus tard, à la grande surprise de celui dont elle avait été l’interjection, les proportions d’une formule.” These sentences appeared in Hugo’s 1864 Shakespeare, indicating the idea was accepted and widely known. The battle cry against classicism was “art for art’s sake” and, ironically, given that Kant based his aesthetic ideas of beauty upon classicism, the reinterpretations of his work undermined the very notion of universal beauty. As would be seen in the art of Gustave Courbet, artistic freedom opened the door to an expression of the ugly and allowed the ordinary into the precincts of art. The new mood of romantic individualism became a movement among artists and writers in both France and Germany–Romanticism. Théophile Gautier wrote that “Art for art’s sake means for its adepts the pursuit of pure beauty — without any other preoccupation.”

In her book, The Genesis of the Theory of “Art for Art’s Sake” in Germany and in England, Egan who is rarely mentioned by later historians, thought that perhaps, since Robinson was writing in 1845, he was writing from memory, that one should look to Thackery for the earliest use of the phrase in English. In 1839, writing to his mother, the author remarked, “Please God we shall begin again ere long, to love art for art’s sake.” Based on these widespread accounts covering three languages, the idea that art had its own destiny was both attractive and probably necessary. Within the Romantic movement, artists were believed to have the right to exist for the sole purpose of making art and art supposedly existed for the sole purpose of being art. Art for art’s sake is such a powerful (and necessary) concept, so pervasive and entrenched that it is one of the most important motivating forces behind art to this day. the artist and the work of art now had a purpose again—not a social purpose but a purpose that was strictly an art purpose. Confronting the staid and serious Neoclassic was its rival “ism,” Romanticism, which championed the artist as a genius and art as an expression of that genius—concepts that were pure Kant.

Although “Art for art’s sake” is a particular concept developed within the branch of philosophy called Aesthetics, these terms: “art for art’s sake,” “aestheticism” and “aesthetics” are not interchangeable. Also not to be confused with Kantian aesthetic theory is Aestheticism, which was an artistic movement in late nineteenth-century England. English Aestheticism was an attitude on the part of art makers and art appreciators, based upon the desire to make every object “artful” and beautiful, regardless of its utilitarian or use value. While late nineteenth century Aestheticism was a desire to combine art and life and life and beauty, “Art for art’s sake” was an aspect of aesthetics, a Kantian derived concept, completely divorced from any specific work of art or from any particular art movement. The independence of aesthetics from art is best illustrated when we picture Kant, an elderly and retiring philosopher professor who denied himself all sensual pleasures in his pursuit of the intellect. Living in a backwater university town, he never went to museums and did not own any art, and yet he was able to reason his way to the solution of grounding the response to art, which is personal and therefore subjective (based within the viewing subject), in an intellectual framework that is impersonal and objective and, above all, disinterested.

The intellectual framework devised by Kant provided aesthetics as the philosophical grounds for the definition of art in an age when art needed its freedom. Kant set art free from content, subject matter, the client’s wishes, the community’s desires and the needs of religion. The idea of art being given wholly over to aesthetic pleasure and delight was the ultimate freedom of art to exist on its own merits and to be the center of its own world. Art lived and died by its own art rules and justified its own existence in terms of its separate universe. Art was autonomous and free. Kant’s ahistorical or transcendental ideas were conveyed by German expatriates to post-Revolution French intellectuals and artists, who were increasingly alienated from society and adrift without the traditional patrons of Church and State. Suddenly socially “useless” without their historical missions, certain artists found Kant’s concepts very appealing and timely.

The Critique of Judgment (1790) contained the right ideas at the right time: concepts, which were a fortuitous response to an artistic crisis at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What does an artist do? How does an artist make art and why? Why is it that certain objects are universally called “art?” What are the common characteristics of these objects? What is their “art-ness?” Kant’s answers became, by the 20th century, to be commonly called “formalism.” Attention to Form in Kantian philosophy, or art for art’s sake, separates art from its traditional role as purveyor of subject matter on the command of a patron. But there is a difference between what Kant wrote and what his followers made of his ideas. For Kant, formalism is a mode of apprehending and emphasizes direct experience or intuitional awareness, without consideration of practical implications, of a work of art. The cultivation of aesthetic experience as a deliberate value was the work of Kant, who developed a critical criterion for the aptness of a work of art for appreciation, based upon its formal properties, rather than upon practical significance or importance of subject matter. Almost two hundred years later, his aesthetic system was rewritten as formal exploration the intrinsic properties of art itself was the only appropriate mode of art making, but as will be discussed in other posts, this reinterpretation was a misreading of the original concepts in the Critique of Judgment.

Also read: “Kant and Aesthetic Theory” and “Kant and the Critique of Judgment”

and “Kant’s ‘Art-for-Art’s-Sake” and “Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom”

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

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