Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde

Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde

Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde

Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde


In this challenging essay, Maarten Doorman argues that in art, belief in progress is still relevant, if not essential. The radical freedoms of postmodernism, he claims, have had a crippling effect on art, leaving it in danger of becoming meaningless. Art can only acquire meaning through context; the concept of progress, then, is ideal as the primary criterion for establishing that context. The history of art, in fact, can be seen as a process of constant accumulation, works of art commenting on one another and enriching one another's meanings. It is these complex interrelationships and the progress they create in both art and its observers that Doorman, in a display of great philosophical erudition, defends.


In the damning criticism that Kant once wrote of the Swedish spiritist Emanuel Schwedenborg, he apologizes for depriving his reader of a few moments `he might otherwise have spent reading substantial texts on this material but probably with equally limited results.' Yet Kant believed he still accommodated his reader `by leaving out many wild fantasies,' for which he expected as much gratitude `as a patient might ever owe his doctors because they made him eat only the bark of the quinine tree, whereas they might have made him eat the whole tree.' This, I believe, is the best attitude a philosopher can adopt whenever he or she ventures into the realm of the arts. In the present book, I avoid wherever possible the numerous wild speculations often found in aesthetics, albeit for the purpose of making space for my own, a space I no doubt have granted too sparingly to others.

First published in Dutch in 1994, this book has evoked many critical responses, some of which I have incorporated here. Its original thrust, and, I hope, relevance, however, remain unchanged. Regrettably, I have had to make one major concession to the translation. The original version included two empirical case studies: the first on ideas of progress in the De Stijl movement in art and architecture, the second on the so-called `Fifties' Movement' (Beweging van Vijftig), which brought about a revolution in postwar Dutch poetry. I have had to drop the latter as it would have required too much explaining and because any attempt to conduct a thorough discussion based on translations of poetry is a risky undertaking.

As a result, there is relatively heavy emphasis on the visual arts. On the one hand, this is not problematic because the discussion concerning the presumed end of the arts in the final chapter of this book is conducted most explicitly precisely with reference to this area. On the other hand, I have no desire to limit myself to the visual arts, given that the apparent crisis in the contemporary arts has much broader significance and that the historical debates preceding it touch on all the arts.

This book would not have appeared in its present form without the rigorous and constructive criticism of Gerard de Vries and Maarten van Nierop. I am more indebted to them than Kant's hypothetical patient would probably have been to his doctors. I am also grateful to numerous colleagues and critics for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this book, and even . . .

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