July 18, 2003

Derek Allen Interview#6

This post picks up on the sixth part of Rick's interview with Derek Allen. In this part the issue of art's historicity is placed on the table.

Rick refers to this in terms of being ‘time-bound’, ‘subject to change and potential consignment to oblivion’, and he suggests that Derek regards this as ‘the most radical challenge Malraux represents to the way the art institution understands art.

At first this seems to be a bit over the top since German philosophy and aesthetics (Hegel & Nietzsche) in the nineteenth century went historicist in reaction to Kant. From this perspective it is modernist, Anglo-American analytic aesthetics that went formalist in the early twentieth century, and so repudiated the historical nature of art. Malraux could be interpreted as standing in the continental aesthetic tradition and reworking it ---as Adorno did.

Derek's reply is very informative. He refers to the dilemma in which aesthetics now finds itself where this question is concerned.

"On the one hand, we have the longstanding aesthetic tradition suggesting that great art is timeless or eternal. On other hand, there’s the powerful stream of thought originating with writers like Hegel and Taine, and carried forward by various post-Marxist writers (Eagleton is a well-known current example), that art, like all other aspects of human activity, is part of historical experience."

That's good. Derek then says:

Both theories, as we know, run into major problems... So we quickly reach an impasse."

It would be nice to know what the major problems of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory are, but we'll let it go. Derek then introduces the way Malraux deals with the question of art and time. He says:

"For Malraux, a work of art is by its very nature ‘born to metamorphosis’ as he puts it, whether its creator is aware of this or not....He is not dismissing the context in which the work of art comes into being. To that extent, the work does have ‘one foot in history’ so to speak – whether it be the world of an ancient civilisation or of a more recent period. But that, for Malraux, is only the work’s point of departure".

Then comes the key bit. From this point of departure the art work:

"...then sets out on its journey of metamorphosis – which may sometimes result in it being consigned to oblivion for long periods (as Egyptian art was for two millennia, for example) and at other times lead to its rebirth, though always in a different form – as the Pharaoh’s sacred image is now reborn as a ‘work of art’ for instance."

Well we can get that. The work produced by women disappear from history and were forgotten, until they were recovered by feminists as art in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1940s and 1950s work of Joy Hester in Australia comes to mind. (More works here.) The work of the French photographer Eugene Atget would be another example. Many of these were not considered art works when made.

But then Derek introduces the hard stuff:

"A key point to note, going back to the point from which I started out, is that the work of art for Malraux is neither eternal nor embedded in historical time. He is offering us an entirely new conception of the relationship between art and time."

How can that be? How can artworks be historical through and through and yet not embedded in history? Derek leaves it there for us to puzzle over. What can be made of it?

It's a hard one and I have not read Malraux.

One suggestion that can be made is Adorno's idea of autonomous art. It is historical and socially mediated but its autonomy enables it to mount crucial resistance. Hence its social significance.

Such art works belong to a society where exchange has become the dominant principle of social relationships. Like other commodities they hide the labor that has gone into making them, and they appear to have a life of their own. They appear to be superior cultual commodities that are detached from the conditions of their economic production. And they appear to serve no use beyond their own existence.

Adorno does a dialectical twist here to dig out the autonomous nature of art.

By appearing to have a life of their own works of art call into questrion a scociety where nothing is allowed to be itself and everything is subject to the principle of exchange. By appearing to be detached from the conditions of economic production, works of art acquire the capacity to suggest changed social conditions. And by appearing to be useless, works or art recall the human purposes of production that instrumental (economic) reason forgets.

Is that dialectical interplay between autonomy and social character a way of understanding Malraux's idea of art works being inside history but not embedded in it?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 18, 2003 01:05 AM | TrackBack

I haven't read that part of Malraux either, but your interpretation makes sense to me. Anachronism can't exist without history, and so the anti-historical aspect of "art" could be said to be dependent on history as well.

To quote a paraphrase of some M.I.T.-published cog-sci from my "Neuraesthetics" pages:

'Anything that develops outside of our own cultural circumstances provides, by definition, that healthy "diversity of interpretation" based on "broken communication" between entities that have "gone their own ways for a while."'

Context down towards the bottom of:


Posted by: Ray on July 18, 2003 05:06 AM

Gary and Ray

I read your comments with interest. Your puzzlement is quite understandable because my explanation was very abbreviated and ended up, as I thought it might, sounding rather enigmatic. (I am currently writing a paper for a conference in which I hope to explain the proposition more fully.)

The only point I would make here is that Malraux does not seek to divorce the work from the moment in time in which it was created. To that extent his theory is not ahistorical (as analytic aesthetics and various other approaches are, for instance). But he is arguing that the time in which a work of art lives ('has its being' if you like), from the moment of its creation, is not historical time. Nor, he argues, does it live timelessly or 'eternally' - as many theories of aesthetics suppose (and indeed as much everyday thinking assumes as well).

These two options - timelessness and history - are the two principal alternatives aesthetics has given us to conceptualise the relationship between art and time - ie art's 'temporal nature'. Malraux is proposing another.

I will have to leave it at that. I'm not sure if it helps!

Derek Allan

Posted by: Derek Allan on July 19, 2003 10:50 AM
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