Aesthetics,Art History, Modernism

By Melville, Stephen | Art Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Aesthetics,Art History, Modernism

Melville, Stephen, Art Journal

Aesthetics,Art History, Modernism Stephen Melville J. M. Bernstein. Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Pointing. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. 400 pp., 20 b/w ills. $70 cloth, $27.95 paper.

With some notable exceptions, English-speaking aesthetics and the history of art have not in the recent past had a great deal to say to one another.1 Typically, aestheticians interested in the visual arts have made their arguments apart from concrete instances or have appealed to such instances only as examples and not as objects of sustained or consequential interest.2 Art historians, for their part, think about their discipline the way they do largely in consequence of Erwin Panofsky's strong turn away from the active dialogue with philosophy that still crucially informed the work of figures like Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Aby Warburg; more recent turns away from "the aesthetic" and toward visual culture have to a high degree repeated and further radicalized this founding move. Within the field of more or less individual exceptions, one particular constellation has lately taken form around the critical theory of T. W. Adorno-a figure who has both established a significant beachhead within Anglo-American aesthetics and served as a major resource for social history of art-with a number of philosophers working in this vein moving toward a much closer engagement with particular works of art, particular histories of art, and the discipline of art history itself Jay Bernstein has for a number of years been active in the background of this shift, and Against Voluptuous Bodies is the most fully realized and ambitious work to emerge from it to date.4

It seems fair to say that the most general charter and background for this kind of work derives from G. W F. Hegel, whose aesthetics cannot be elaborated apart from an account of art's actual history-a history in which art shows itself to belong to and to play a crucial transformative role within the history of thought. Work in this tradition thus necessarily unfolds in relation to a promise that works of art might figure as elements of argument and not simply objects of it. But for Bernstein this promise is empty, as it must be following Marx and Adorno, and Against Voluptuous Bodies is thus pledged to a delicate balancing act, both preserving and crossing disciplinary boundaries, obliged to forge a permanently uneasy and divided audience: "The weaving together of the philosophical, historical, and critical strands of the claim of Adorno's philosophical modernism should, ideally, enable its reception in the already well-formed debate about painterly modernism; equally, and perhaps even more important, it should enable a reception that is not narrowly tied to the development of Critical Theory, and hence exposes it to the interest of a wider and very different audience. Such, at least, was the task I set for myself from the moment the idea for this book first emerged" (13).

It's a formidable-perhaps impossible-task Bernstein thus sets himself: the book, disclaiming the authority of or any ambition to art history "proper," must nonetheless make direct and sustained sense of particular bodies of work-Pieter de Hooch, Chaim Soutine, Anthony Caro, Chantal Akerman, Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Ryman, and Cindy Sherman figure with particular prominence. Bernstein's strategy here is "to forward the analysis and meaning of Adorno's modernism indirectly by engaging with those accounts of modernism that have proved to be the most challenging and telling in recent debates" (13)-so if the names of artists provide one map of the book's progress, the other map moves through the writers with whom they are paired: Rene Descartes, Clement Greenberg, Stanley Cavell, Michael Fried, T. J. Clark, Thierry de Duve, Arthur Danto, and Yve-Alain Bois. But of course the challenge is also to art history-to its capacity to admit interests that outrun the terms of its standing self-recognitions. …

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