Friday, August 06, 2010

Huffer, Lynne. Review of Joseph J. Tanke, FOUCAULT'S PHILOSOPHY OF ART. NDPR (August 2010).

Tanke, Joseph J.  Foucault's Philosophy of Art: a Genealogy of Modernity.  London: Continuum, 2009.

Foucault's Philosophy of Art presents a wide-ranging overview of Foucault's various writings about Western art. The book explores "how art sheds its traditional vocation in order to become modern" (5) through a systematic analysis of Foucault's claims about the post-representational nature of modern art. Weaving together Foucault's disparate writings, interviews, and lectures on visual aesthetics -- some of them only recently published and still untranslated -- Tanke finds in Foucault not only a "philosophy of art," as announced by the book's title, but also a "lost genealogy" and a new "strand in the historical ontology of ourselves" (4). Tanke situates Foucault's art writings in the interstitial space that separates aesthetic philosophy from art history. So doing, he allows formal problems such as materiality, medium, lighting, color, depth, perspective, similitude, abstraction, and the place of the viewer to interface with familiar Foucauldian concepts such as archeological description, genealogical rupture, the event, ethical parrhesia, and the shifting relation between subjectivity and truth. Tanke presents Foucault's writings on art as a "necessary corrective to the ahistorical tendencies of philosophical aesthetics" (5). At the same time, the Foucauldian philosophical apparatus Tanke brings to bear on aesthetic criticism reshapes our understanding of art history. Reframing genealogy as a "visual practice" (6) that articulates a "dissociating view" (7), Tanke thus rewrites both the story of Foucault and the story of modern art. If we have long understood Foucault to be a thinker of epistemic and genealogical rupture, the relation between that rupture and the visual realm has not yet been as clearly articulated as it is in Foucault's Philosophy of Art.

Although Tanke claims to present Foucault's writings on art from the 17th century to the present, the book is primarily about modernity and Foucault's analyses of modern artists, including his 1971 Tunis lecture on Edouard Manet (1832-1883), his book on René Magritte (1898-1967), and lesser known writings and interviews on Paul Rebeyrolle (1926-2005), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Gérard Fromanger (b. 1939), Werner Schroeter (b. 1945), and Duane Michals (b. 1932). Tanke bookends his readings of art in modernity with an opening interpretation of Foucault's famous commentary on Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas (1656) in The Order of Things (1966) and, in the final chapter, an analysis of Foucault's last Collège de France lectures, Le Courage de la vérité, on the Cynical life as a work of art. Throughout the book, Tanke develops the Foucauldian claim that, beginning with Manet in the mid-19th century, art establishes a break with quattrocento painting by moving away from a representational aesthetic. "When we take a genealogical look at Western art," Tanke writes, "we see that modernity is fundamentally incompatible with representation" (8).

To be sure, to say that modern art is post-representational is hardly a new insight. Indeed, the bulk of 20th-century writing on art, from R. G. Collingwood to Clement Greenberg to Rosalind Krauss to Gary Shapiro's study of visuality in Foucault and Nietzsche, can be viewed as an elaboration on the post-representation theme. One might therefore be tempted, at first glance, to dismiss Tanke's thesis as unoriginal. Such a reading, however, would miss the uniquely archeological frame Tanke brings to his analysis. As Tanke points out, and as readers of Foucault's The Order of Things (1966) already know, "representation" in Foucault has a specific, historically inflected epistemic meaning: representation names the ordering of knowledge that characterizes the Classical age, the 17th- and 18th-century episteme that follows the Renaissance age of resemblance and which gives way to modernity and the rise of man at the end of the 18th century. Understanding this archeological sense of representation is crucial to comprehending Tanke's thesis about post-representational art, and Tanke helpfully devotes the book's first chapter, "The Stirrings of Modernity," to a clear explication of The Order of Things and the significance of art in the story it tells. . . . 

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