Cynical Aesthetics: A Theme from Michel Foucault's 1984 Lectures at the College De France

By Tanke, Joseph J. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Cynical Aesthetics: A Theme from Michel Foucault's 1984 Lectures at the College De France


Tanke, Joseph J., Philosophy Today


To write about Michel Foucault-to offer commentary on his work-is to betray him. The task of the commentator is plagued with the consistent reminder both in Foucault's life and work that he is a thinker who defies classification. Much can be made of this passage from The Archeology of Knowledge: "Don't ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write."1 Foucault took delight in being slippery. Offering commentary runs the risk of squelching his effort-of being bureaucratic, or worse, moralistic, and placing confines on his writing.

Yet this is only half of the story. Foucault once remarked that he was in the business of selling tools: "Writing interests me only to the extent that it is incorporated into the reality of a combat as an instrument, a tactic, a means of shedding light.I certainly do not see what I do as a body of work (oeuvre), and I am shocked to see anyone call me a writer.. I sell tools."2 Foucault's death in June of 1984 threatens to impose a finality on his work that no commentator ever could. If Foucault's writings are to be used as tools, as he suggests, then we must temper them and ensure that they do not rust, inventory them and take account of what we have at our disposal.

Foucault opened what would be his last series of public lectures, Le courage de la verite: le gouvernment de soi et des autres 11, on I February 1984 at the the College de France.3 These nine lectures are a complicated treatment of classical texts. The guiding theme is the study of ethical parrhesia in the Greek world. This series of lectures is full of many apercus that remain undeveloped. One such insight, that of looking at the modern4 artist as a contemporary Cynic, will be developed here. These final lessons are "a means of shedding light" on the experience of art in the contemporary world and are essential for any Foucaultian understanding of art and aesthetics.

It has been pointed out that despite various engagements with both art and artists, no definitive Foucaultian statement on aesthetics is available.5This is curious, for Foucault's work abounds with treatments of literature and painting. Most, however, are somehow about more than the art which is being examined. His two most famous musings, one on Velazquez's Las Meninas at the opening of The Order of Things, and the other, an examination of Magritte's Ceci West pas une pipe, exemplify Foucault's use of art as an opening for a larger endeavor. With Las Meninas, Foucault uses an examination of the painting as an entry into discussing the distinction between the Renaissance episteme of resemblance and the Classical age's episteme of representation.6 Similarly, in his analysis of Ceci West pas une pipe, Foucault uses Magritte's work to indicate the separation of images from meaning, and the loss of resemblance or "affirmation" between the painted image and reality.7 In both cases the treatment of a painting is used to open a discussion about the ordering of things, rather than to advocate a particular aesthetic paradigm.

It is not atypical that Foucault never delivered a treatise containing pronouncements about what art should be. Ever critical of those who would rush to assert what should be the case, Foucault was highly conscious of the thinker's responsibilities in making normative claims. Handing down an aesthetic proclamation would have been out of character. Foucault instead spent his energies working on the past, digging through the vast archives of historical documents at the Bibliotheque Nationale and later the library of the Dominican order in Paris, the Bibliotheque du Saulchoir. This work on the past was, for him, necessary for understanding the present and for seeing how remote historical practices still impact our lives. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find art considered in a similar manner and to learn that ancient practices of self-stylization and truth-telling have been subsumed into the practices of modern art. …

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