The Crisis of Realism
In May 1867 Edouard Manet made a kind of programmatic statement when he wrote: “The artist does not say today, 'Come and see faultless works,' but 'Come and see sincere works.'” Later in this part (in the chapter on style) I shall come back to the specific meaning of these words. Here we shall only say that when it was made, this programmatic statement that brought up a central problem in the theory of art, was unusual and differed from the issues commonly raised in discussions of art. Does it mark the beginning of a new theory of art? When, and in what context, did modern reflection on art begin? Periodization is always a peculiar matter. While we usually cannot trace a precise demarcation line between the old and the new, we also cannot help but divide up the continuous history we are studying into periods. Hence we cannot stop asking for beginnings. This question also imposes itself upon the student of modern thought on art.
The doctrines to be considered in the present volume emerged within four crucial decades: the late sixties or early seventies of the nineteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth. Replacing anonymous dates by terms denoting well-known art movements, we would say this was the period from the emergence of impressionism to the full crystallization of the principles of abstract art. The ideas that characterized the emergence and impact of what is called “abstract art” so profoundly stirred the minds of artists, critics, and audiences throughout the twentieth century that they came to overshadow the theoretical significance of impressionism, its spiritual and cultural sources, and the disturbing and revolutionizing effects that this movement had on critical reflection on the art of image making in later decades.
In the critical literature, impressionism is frequently treated as a “painter's art,” an art that embodies specific pictorial values, and is devoted to them alone. This means, in fact that, on the one hand impressionism is considered to be largely detached from other, nonpictorial domains, such as literature, philosophy, and science, and on the other, that the impres-