Andre Malraux and the Challenge to Aesthetics

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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. …