Andre Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics
Allan, Derek, Journal of European Studies
Writers in the field of aesthetics--or the philosophy of art as it is sometimes called--have had relatively little to say about Andre Malraux's account of the visual arts, as presented, for example, in his major works on the subject, Les Voix du silence and La Metamorphose des dieux. Literary critics who discuss Malraux's work as a novelist sometimes extend their commentaries to include his views on visual art as well. Apart from a few notable exceptions, however, writers on aesthetics--where the visual arts have traditionally been a topic of central interest - have largely ignored Malraux. (1) In the Anglo-American sphere particularly, one needs to search long and hard in textbooks on aesthetics, and in major disciplinary forums such as the British Journal of Aesthetics or the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, to find any significant comment on his work. (2)
Malraux himself would not perhaps have been altogether surprised by this. In his introduction to La Metamorphose des dieux, he states explicitly that the work is not intended as 'une esthetique', (3) and there is little doubt that this comment could also be applied to his other works on visual art. Passionately interested in art though he was, Malraux did not see himself as an 'aesthetician' and would not perhaps have expected his writings on the subject to find a ready home among the deliberations of those who were. Yet it would be a major loss to the field of aesthetics to let the matter rest there. Although Malraux's approach to art differs markedly from those one is accustomed to find in books and essays on aesthetics, his relevance to any serious reflection on the nature and purpose of art cannot be doubted. As his books amply demonstrate, Malraux had an extensive--some have used the term 'encyclopaedic'--knowledge of the world of painting and sculpture, from Palaeolithic times to the present. His works are generously illustrated, the text and the images working in tandem to throw light on each other. Above all, he is a highly original thinker--one who, in a determined pursuit of an analysis that will, as he says, make our world of art 'intelligible' to us, (4) regards no proposition or assumption as above question, no matter how well entrenched, or taken for granted it may be.
The present discussion does not seek to cover every aspect of Malraux's wide-ranging thinking about visual art. It does, however, seek to bring to light a number of key elements, particularly those whose relevance to modern aesthetics appears to be much greater than has so far been recognized. Malraux can place substantial demands on his readers because he requires them to venture into intellectual territory that can occasionally be unfamiliar, and to come to grips with ideas that sometimes diverge in startling ways from conventional thinking. This feature, added to a writing style that is often quite different from the somewhat dry and neutral mode favoured by aestheticians, has occasionally led commentators to suggest that Malraux's approach to his subject is unsystematic--one suggesting, for example, that Les Voix du silence should be regarded as a 'lyrical and imaginative, rather than rational' account of the world of art. (5) Such judgements are open to serious question. As the following analysis may help to demonstrate, Malraux sets out his arguments with great care, and while his writing style is often evocative, even poetic, it is never loose or ill-considered. The following discussion will seek to approach Malraux's account of visual art with the care it merits, and will begin with a step-by-step exposition of those aspects of his thought that are relevant to the issues to be considered here. The rewards of doing so, one finds, are well worth the effort. As the discussion will seek to show, Malraux's account of visual art is not only argued with clarity and force but also invites us to think about art in a new and quite revolutionary way.
The opening chapter of Les Voix du silence is headed by a photograph of a gallery in one of the world's major art museums. The image is apt because art museums are, in many respects, where Malraux's thinking about art begins. Art, for Malraux, is first and foremost the range of particular objects that contemporary Western culture considers to be art--and thus, to begin with, the objects displayed in the world's art museums. This is not of course to suggest that the mere display of an object--a painting or sculpture, for example--in an art museum transforms it into a work of art (as, indeed, certain modern aestheticians have tended at times to argue (6)). It is simply an acknowledgement on Malraux's part that contemporary Western culture (in which category he includes other cultures now heavily influenced by the West) has come to regard certain objects as 'works of art', and typically to house those objects in specialized institutions called art museums which are designed to preserve them and place them on public display. As Malraux is quick to add, not all objects regarded as works of art can in fact be moved into museums (objects such as large, fixed sculptures, stained glass windows and many frescos), but in those cases arrangements are usually made to preserve and exhibit them in situ as if they were in an art museum. Together, these two classes of objects make up what Malraux terms our 'musee imaginaire', that is, the range of objects both inside and outside the world's art museums (often made familiar to us through photographic reproductions) that are widely regarded as works of art--a vast art collection 'in our minds', so to speak, that far exceeds the range of any individual institution no matter how large or well endowed. Malraux is not suggesting, one should add, that the contents of this 'museum without walls' (as his phrase is sometimes translated) are now settled once and for all, or that they are necessarily exactly the same for everyone. His view of art, as we shall see later, is inseparable from the idea of change, and he is well aware also that individual preferences vary considerably. (7) The general principle at stake is, however, clear. Unlike the approach frequently adopted in aesthetics, Malraux's thinking begins not with an attempt to define art in terms of an idea (such as 'beauty' or 'self-expression' or 'significant form') but with the range of specific objects now regarded as works of art. Malraux, in other words, locates himself firmly and concretely within the contemporary Western culture whose experiences and responses he is seeking to understand, and he begins not with abstractions but with the particular paintings, sculptures and similar works, that the West has chosen to regard as works of art, and to admire as such. This, of course, is only a point of departure. Malraux's thinking has much further to go. But it is, as we shall see, an orientation of fundamental importance to the arguments that follow. (8)
Malraux's next step is to extend his thinking beyond what the art museum is now, and to reflect on what it has been previously. There has been enormous change, he reminds us, over the past hundred years. Visitors to major art museums today are unlikely to show even mild surprise to find exhibitions that include, for example, Meso-american figurines, statues from Egyptian tombs, or ceremonial masks from Africa and Oceania. Yet, as Malraux points out, objects from non-Western cultures such as these, as well as works from the West itself prior to the Renaissance (such as Romanesque sculpture) only began to gain admittance to the world's art museums from the early years of the twentieth century. Prior to that, art collections were almost exclusively devoted to post-Renaissance European painting and sculpture, and selected works of Greece and Rome. Objects from other sources were uniformly regarded as beyond the pale of art: they were the products of barbarian tastes, lack of expertise or clumsy execution, (9) suitable perhaps for a collection of curios, or for an ethnological or archaeological museum (once these came into being), but not at all …
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Publication information: Article title: Andre Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics. Contributors: Allan, Derek - Author. Journal title: Journal of European Studies. Volume: 33. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2003. Page number: 23+. © 1999 Alpha Academic. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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