I recently started reading Wendy Steiner's Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth Century Art as part of my off and on attempt to dig into recent writing on beauty in aesthetics. Steiner, a professor of English at UPenn and author of a highly regarded volume on contemporary art controversies, The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism, promises to demonstrate that modernist aesthetics, rooting in Kantian ideas of the sublime, shattered an old association between the feminine and beauty in a way that was profoundly misogynistic and distorting of the relations between ethics and aesthetics. Not that premodern modes couldn't be misogynistic themselves, but the attack on beauty that she sees as characteristic of most modern art was one that was inherently tied to an attack on femininity. Steiner's version of (for lack of a better word) postmodernity looks to restore a connection between ethics and aesthetics and rescue the idea of femininity in art from the devalued position she sees it as having occupied.
Now the above may be somewhat inaccurate, as I'm only in the second chapter. And for that reason, I'm also not inclined to draw any conclusions regarding her book. I will say that I've already spotted a serious misreading of Kant, and an arguably invalid assumption regarding the importance and weight given to aspects of his thought. I'm also a little suspicious of her direction, in part because of how I feel about Steiner's work in general. She's very smart, obviously, and an engaged and engaging writer. But I've always found her work a little overly-earnest, in a very decent, good, moderate, liberal reformer kind of way. Very . . . updated nineteenth century, a gut feeling her first chapter does little to change. Not quite as sentimental, perhaps, but earnest, uplifting, bent on edification. And, dammit, it's a little annoying. Other people whom I greatly admire, like Gadamer and Arendt, also looked to connect aesthetics back to broader concerns and end the isolation in which Kant's schema placed it. All I can say at the moment is, they did it differently than Steiner seems to be doing, and I'm not sure I'm going to buy what she gets out of it. There were good reasons to insist on the autonomy of aesthetics, after all, and they have to be weighed against whatever gains she alleges to find. We shall find out.
I’ve been debating back and forth on whether to write about this, and finding that I can’t get it out of my head means that I probably should, so here goes: over at the Valve last week, Daniel Green ran a post discussing an article on avant-garde art and politics by George Katsiaficas. The article is not what you would call a substantial effort, being only about 10 double spaced pages long when printed and citing little of the relevant literature one could bring to bear on the topic. Indeed, Katsiaficas, who is something of a Marcuse disciple, relies mostly upon his mentor’s authority for the direction of the piece. That’s not the most compelling approach in my eyes, but the essay does touch on a few points that connect with other topics discussed here and elsewhere, so it may be worth examining. But be warned: vague, half-baked historical ramblings, ill-thought-out theorizing, and dubious assertions to follow.
I was touched to see this comment by the grand-niece of the late Raymond Klibansky earlier today. The ways of the web often mean that sites like this one get page ranks on search engines far more prominent than one would expect. Too frequently this is a source of some chagrin, as one's little written snit survives to be among the most prominent statements on the internet concerning a topic one really knows nothing about. But sometimes it works otherwise; and I am very happy to have produced a post that was met with warmth by someone who cared about the man.
I learned yesterday that the philosopher and historian Raymond Klibansky died on August 5th at the age of 99 in his adopted home of Montreal, where he was the John Frothingham Emeritus Professor of Logic & Metaphysics at McGill University. I'm having trouble finding any English language webpages to link to on him, which is a shame, since his life, as the description of a Canadian documentary, Raymond Klibansky: De la philosophie à la vie, states, constituted a veritable microcosm of the 20th century. Since I can't just paste and link, I'll try to give the basics as best I can, though I can't vouch for every detail (some of the information below was borrowed from this obituary in French, I hope more or less correctly.) Born to German-Jewish parents in Paris in 1905, at 17 he began studies at the University of Heidelberg, where Marianne Weber, the widow of Max, asked for his help in correcting the text of her late husband's Economy and Society. He would study under Karl Jaspers, Ernst Cassirer, and Ferdinand Tönnies, the last experience enabling him to joke that he was but "two handshakes" from Marx. With an academic career impossible because of the Nazi regime and an increasingly dangerous situation developing, Klibansky left Germany, arriving at Oxford in 1933. He would spend the war working for the British secret service.
Klibansky had been exposed to the scholars surrounding Aby Warburg and the Institute which bears his name in Germany, and his association with them deepened in England. Klibansky's scholarship on Plato in the Middle Ages and his work editing the writings of Nicholas of Cusa, among many other publications, testify to his longstanding investigation of the classical tradition to which the Warburg Institute remains dedicated. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the Natural History of Philosophy, Religion, and Art, which he coauthored with Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, stands as his best-known work among those in the arts (or, at least, to me.) The book, an expanded version of the latter pair's earlier text on Durer's Melancholia I, remains among the finest examples of the sort of esoteric history of ideas and culture with which the the pioneers of the Warburg Institute earned their fame.
But Klibansky never abandoned more current concerns, directing a survey of contemporary European philosophy and writing on topics such as tolerance and democracy. The range of his work, as the description of a festschrift for him notes, gave another meaning to a phrase from Nicholas of Cusa: una veritas in variis signis resplendet - roughly, one truth shines in different forms. Grief is not the appropriate emotion for those of us beyond actual acquaintance with the man, especially given that his death comes at the end of such a fulfilled life. But it's worth taking the time to realize what made it so rich and to become more deeply acquainted with his work. After that, one's best wishes go out to his family and friends.
"Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it."
Not a terribly complicated or controversial thought, and some might wonder if it's worth a whole book (though a small one, I should add.) But along with arguing for his theses, Danto takes the time to explore the history of beauty's role in art, the challenges to it presented by modern and contemporary art, and how different aesthetic qualities have played their part in forcing beauty's changing status. Along the way he considers such questions as the role of museums in regards to the art they hold, the relationship between art and politics, and, more broadly, morality, and the very definition of art. The book, which originated as a series of lectures and various chapters of which were published elsewhere, has the clean prose, intelligence, and light touch one expects of Danto. But it also includes some profoundly puzzling ideas, some others I think are mistaken or at least only partially true, and a number of insights that are left unexplored. I don't have the philosophical knowledge or expertise to argue with the book on all of its levels, but I'll try to offer what assessment I can of it below.
Can the blogs do it better? I've always had my doubts, but this tribute to Paul Ricoeur by a guest at Michael Bérubé's site, while it doesn't substitute for a full obituary, has much to cherish. Consider this lovely paragraph:
Almost alone in the fervid atmosphere that accompanied the
poststructuralist assault on humanism, Ricoeur retained his good humor
and his good sense. Even in his famous repudiation of the
“hermeneutics of suspicion” (in the opening chapter of Freud and Philosophy ),
Ricoeur associated that aggressive hermeneutic with three figures—Marx,
Nietzsche, and Freud—whom it would be absurd to attempt excluding from
the intellectual heritage of every practicing humanist. He
acknowledged a varied and conflicted tradition that generated a varied
and conflicted contemporary conversation—and his intention was always
to bring everyone into the room and to listen to every voice in the
conversation. He never impugned the motives of his adversaries or
imputed evil designs to them or questioned their right to say their
piece. All disagreements were assumed to be honest disagreements. And
I don’t know what would have counted as rendering those disagreements
dishonest since Ricoeur, to the last, took each and every printed word
that he read and subsequently discussed utterly seriously.
I'm reminded on Momigliano's assessment of Herodotus that I quoted a while back (from a book I want to get back to.) Obviously hugely different circumstances and roles, but the integrity feels the same. Something to remember when sitting and writing another post (or comment), I think.
Still waiting on any appropriate acknowledgement of the death of Paul Ricoeur in the media, as far as I've been able to view it. What has trickled in has not been so good. The most complete piece I've seen has been from The Telegraph. It was an improvement on the A.P.'s earlier notice, but repeated the utterly inane idea that phenomenology involves "the study of how perceptions of events shape a person's reality". That characterization, an apparent equation of phenomenology with solipsism, appeared in the Associated Press account and now, it seems, will live. The rest of the Telegraph article hints at some of the true nature and depth of Ricoeur's work and its value, but I'm afraid it looks like we're going to have to wait a while for appropriate treatment.
There will be more to follow, but for now, the A.P.'s obituary, complete with a highly misleading description of phenomenology and none at all of hermeneutics (see also a good Ricoeur page at Wikipedia, with helpful links):
French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur Dies
By JAMEY KEATEN
Associated Press Writer
PARIS -- Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher whose broad
interests included biblical interpretation and the study of human
perception, has died. He was 92.
died from natural causes in his sleep overnight at his home in the town
of Chatenay-Malabry, west of Paris, his son Marc said Friday.
Born in the southeastern town of Valence, Ricoeur was orphaned at an
early age. But he was able to go to school and earned a doctorate at
the University of Rennes in western France.
was teaching high school in western France when World War II broke out,
and ended up spending most of the war in a German prison camp.
the war, he held various teaching positions -- including prestigious
posts at Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Chicago. He also
worked for the elite National Center for Scientific Research, and was
active in the Socialist Party.
He was perhaps best known for
his work in the field of phenomenology -- the study of how perceptions
of events shape a person's reality -- and sought to understand how
people could overcome weaknesses and doubts by looking at their
"If I had to lay out my vision of the
world ... I would say: given the place where I was born, the culture I
received, what I read, what I learned (and) what I thought about, there
exists for me a result that constitutes, here and now, the best thing
to do," he told French daily newspaper Le Monde in January 2004. "I
call it the action that suits."
The author of at least 20
books, Ricoeur examined an array of subjects, including guilt and evil,
linguistics, psychology, Marxism, religion and the role of ethics in
In November, Ricoeur and U.S. historian Jaroslav
Pelikan were each awarded a share of the $1 million Kluge prize, set up
in 2003 to honor achievement in fields not covered by the Nobel prizes.
He also received the 1939-45 Croix de Guerre medal and the Grand Prize
of Philosophy from Academie Francaise in France.
today more than a philosopher," said Prime Minister Jean-Pierre
Raffarin in a statement. "The entire European humanist tradition is
mourning one of its most talented spokesmen."
instructions that his funeral be limited to friends and family members,
his son said. The date and place were to be made public only after the
"That the notion of a fundamental discontinuity between humans and their natural world should have come to appear evident is itself a curious phenomenon. That notion is, primordially, radically counterintuitive. Humans, notoriously, live their lives in and as their bodies whose rhythm is integrated with the rhythms of nature. The cycle of vigor and fatigue echoes that of the day and night, the rhythm of the new moon and the full moon has its counterpart in the rhythm of a woman's body, and, less obviously, a man’s body as well. The cycle of the seasons harmonizes with the cycle of human life. In the quest for sustenance and shelter, for the sharing of lives and the care of the young, in the eagerness of youth and the fullness of age, the lives of humans intermesh with those of all animate beings. Drawing water at dawn, making ready to break fast, I watch the woodchuck at his grazing: I can sense with all the evidence of primordial awareness that he and I are kin. Resting before the house at dusk, I can see the porcupines with their young beneath the boulders on the opposite bank venture forth: even so I had once led my children on their discovery of the world. Hoeing the beans, I watch their tendrils groping for the strings I stretched for them – so I, too, have groped for support. I can understand the old age of my apple trees, living past their time: perhaps that, too, will be my lot.
I sense my own place in the rhythm of the seasons, from seed time to harvest, the falling leaves and the stillness of winter. Some tasks are, perhaps, uniquely mine, not shared by other dwellers of the field and the forest. I can cherish the fragile beauty of the first trillium against the dark moss, and I can mourn its passing. I can know the truth of nature and serve its good, as a faithful steward. I can be still before the mystery of the holy, the vastness of the starry heavens and the grandeur of the moral law. That task may be uniquely mine. Yet even the bee, pollinating the cucumber blossoms, has its own humble, unique task. Though distinct in my own way, I yet belong, deeply, within the harmony of nature. There is no experiential given more primordial than that."