Oct. 4, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 2

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    Scholars to explain what influenced abstract art

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Unlike the works of the Impressionists, so beloved by museum visitors and poster buyers, abstract avant-garde art of the 20th century continues to mystify the average viewer.

    On Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13, a group of prominent French and American philosophers, art historians and artists will discuss a compelling explanation for abstract art and its strangeness: abstract art ultimately springs from religious iconoclasm, the rejection of images in the name of the sacred.

    This idea originates with Alain Besançon, a renowned French historian and cultural critic, who develops this argument in his book The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, recently translated into English and published by the University Press.

    In his book, Besançon provides a whirlwind history of iconoclasm in Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions and traces the notion through European art and philosophy of the medieval and modern periods. According to Besançon, the thread that connects abstraction to iconoclasm is the quest for purity in representation. He identifies a type of asceticism, a dissatisfaction with the representation of the existing world, present in both ancient iconoclastic traditions and in 20th-century art. For him, 20th-century abstractionist aesthetics contain a mystical religiosity deeply informed by esotericism.

    That 20th-century abstract painting is just the latest movement in a long struggle over idolatry, going back to the Bible’s Second Commandment, is itself a new and provocative idea. Conference participants, prominent thinkers on art, history and philosophy, will debate Besançon’s proposal and examine alternate explanations. Besançon also will be a featured speaker at the conference, explaining and defending his ideas.

    Thomas Pavel, one of the organizers of the conference “Why Abstract Art? Reflections on Alain Besançon’s The Forbidden Image” and Professor and Chairman of Romance Languages & Literatures and the College, said, “Besançon’s is a powerful thesis on the meaning of recent art. By linking the iconoclastic tradition to abstract art, Besançon highlights the latter’s aversion for the visible world and its confidence in the mystical intuition alleged to provide a deeper knowledge than reason and the senses.

    “There is a tradition in art of avoiding representing God as a human figure, as we learn from the many debates over iconoclasm. But there is something unusual about abstract art: the 20th-century’s avant-garde is not like the 19th-century’s. It is incredibly difficult, nearly impossible to get used to it. It seems fantastic the first time, but what do you do the second time and afterwards?”

    A specialist on the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. & Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee on Social Thought and in the College, will speak at the conference. Pippin has suggested that the origins of abstraction are in a fear of vulgarity, cheapness and kitsch, which Pavel characterizes as a sort of “fear of Hallmark.”

    “It is analogous to the ascetic impulse in religion. Against easy sentimentality, the abstractionists took the route of austerity and purity, saying ‘we don’t care about the public, we’ll just do what we think best,’” said Pavel. But, he argued, this raises a problem: “A saint who goes away from the world finds God; but in art, what is the reward for asceticism?”

    One such reward, suggests Besançon, is in the inherent fascination of the material. As he wrote in The Forbidden Image: “It seemed to me that this entire history is filled with marvelous things, philosophical and theological splendors, as if the question of the divine image formed a guiding thread to which they were attracted, and drew the beholder up a very steep mountain ridge, from one peak to the next.”

    The University’s Department of Romance Languages & Literatures, the Committee on Social Thought and the France-Chicago Center are sponsors of the conference. Other speakers will include Joel Snyder, Professor in Art History and the College, who has written on “Photography, Vision and Representation;” W.J.T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and Art History and in the College, the author of Iconology and editor of Critical Inquiry; Marc Fumaroli, Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures and author of L’╚cole du silence: le sentiment des images au XVIIe si╦cle; Michael Fried, a professor of comparative literature and art history at Johns Hopkins University; and James Welling, a photographer who has drawn extensively on abstraction in his work, inspired, among other things, by the European and American avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Rhys Chatham.

    The conference will take place from 9:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, and from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, in Room 10 of the Classics Building, 1010 E. 59th St. Those interested in attending should contact Thomas Bartscherer, Lecturer in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division, at thom@uchicago.edu.