Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 11, 2002
Matthew Rampley Nietzsche, Aesthetics, and Modernity Cambridge University Press, 2000. 286 pp. Cloth $59.95 (0521651557)
Walter Rampley The Remembrance of Things Past: On Aby M. Warburg and Walter Benjamin Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000. 138 pp.; 9 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9783447042990)
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Where Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about the visual arts are scattered throughout his copious writings and have had little direct bearing on the course or practice of art history, Rampley’s other protagonists—Walter Benjamin and Aby M. Warburg—wrote systematically on the visual and are today much discussed in the discipline. Yet despite the many differences among these important figures, and between these two publications, the coincident appearance of Rampley’s very rewarding studies makes a comparison possible.

Nietzsche, Aesthetics, and Modernity is a full and persuasive reassessment of Nietzsche’s thinking on the aesthetic. Nietzsche’s writing is frequently opaque, but Rampley’s discussions of even the most recondite Nietzschean topics—the Übermensch, eternal recurrence, nihilism—are marked by an admirable clarity. As his book demonstrates, the diffusion of Nietzsche’s ideas on the aesthetic is not entirely a bad thing because it allows one to reconstruct his views from a variety of perspectives, a practice consonant with his own philosophical method. Nietzsche’s strained relationship with his immediate philosophical precursors in Germany, for example, is amply seen in arguments over art and the aesthetic staged with Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Though it was in part Nietzsche’s purpose to overthrow German Idealism, Rampley refines our sense of Nietzsche’s agonistics by demonstrating how close he often came to Kant’s thinking. Rampley is a much clearer and more reliable exegete of Kant than was Nietzsche, with the result that we can perceive that where Nietzsche thought he was departing from Kant, he was frequently building on his example. As Rampley astutely points out, “Kant” was a target for Nietzsche because the latter strategically took the former’s famous name as “an abbreviated sign for what Nietzsche perceive[d] as the tradition of aesthetics” (175). Rampley also shows that Nietzsche was finally less close to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art, even though he sometimes sought to emulate its fundamentals. Schopenhauer, for example, believed that art properly arrested the flow of time; Nietzsche saw art as a potentially liberating exercise of the will to form in that it was always powerfully selective and dynamic in its re-presentation of the past.

Rampley shows that such attacks on Kant’s and Hegel’s aesthetics were part of Nietzsche’s systematic attempt to contest and ultimately replace nothing less than the “cultural legacy of Platonism” (130): metaphysics. Perhaps Nietzsche’s greatest contribution to thinking about the arts—and Rampley’s in exposing it—was to place the aesthetic centrally in what Rampley aptly deems this “first deconstruction of the philosophical tradition” (6). Nietzsche uses art, ideally, as the perspectival antidote to metaphysical claims to certainty and against the penchant for dividing reality into the real and its reflections. He condemns the metaphysical pattern of relegating change and nonidentity to the category of untruth. Art, rather, is nonmimetic, nonrepresentational in the sense that, for Nietzsche, it transforms rather than reveals. Nietzsche’s famous antifoundationalism, however, led in his analyses to a modernity characterized by a passive nihilism that he abhorred almost as vigorously as the failed metaphysics that spawned this condition. Where nihilism, “the self-devaluation of values” (138), was defeatist, Nietzsche proclaimed the productive resistance of the negative for a worker genius charged with creating art without metaphysical supports. The production of a new sort of modern art in this context of nihilism was, Rampley argues persuasively, Nietzsche’s way to find a more satisfactory modernity and to overcome the nihilism of his time.

In The Remembrance of Things Past: On Aby M. Warburg and Walter Benjamin, a profound dissatisfaction with what they perceived as the state of modernity links Nietzsche to these two thinkers, as well as to Theodor Adorno, who figures prominently in both of Rampley’s books. As he details the many points of contact between Benjamin and Warburg, Rampley is careful to keep our eyes on this larger issue of the discontentment with modernity, the need for its analysis and potential amelioration. Rampley also points to an important link between Warburg’s and Nietzsche’s meditations on memory, that process crucial, too, in Benjamin’s thoughts on aura and thus in his attempts to rethink the way history is made. Noting that Warburg had purposefully laid the foundation stone of the Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek on the anniversary of Nietzsche’s death, Rampley explores how Warburg’s emphasis on cultural remembrance in Italian Renaissance classicism, rather than on mere revival, relied on Nietzsche’s aesthetic preferences and his understanding of temporal recurrence. Underlining “Benjamin’s use of Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence as a description of the logic of capitalism” (99), Rampley not only establishes a connection with and difference from Warburg, but also posits Nietzsche as the source for Benjamin’s now highly influential notion of history as recollection. Standing behind Benjamin and Warburg as an authority, then, but also recalling their present concerns with the historiography of the visual, Nietzsche can now be seen as much more influential in the history of art history than has been recognized.

Implicit in Rampley’s new books is the notion that these three figures are important to us today as we again, or still, perceive a crisis in the understanding of visual culture. If, as Hal Foster has recently argued in “Dialectics of Seeing,”(1) art history is forever in the grip of “memory crises” (Holly and Moxey 221) as it attempts to reconstitute material and intellectual traditions, then various pairings or clusterings of thinkers as well as artworks can be used therapeutically in our attempts to understand the histories we write. Like Rampley, Foster favors pairs: he offers Benjamin and Erwin Panofsky, Benjamin and Andre Malreaux, Warburg and Heinrich Wölfflin. He sees “the spirit of Warburg” in Thomas Crow and Hubert Damisch (227). Perhaps this binocularity is a function of Wölfflin’s polarities, which themselves mirror our own eyes as reflected in the technology of dual slide projection. As we look back, Nietzsche becomes more and more pertinent to the process of recollection that we call art history.

Mark A. Cheetham
Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto

1 Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey, eds., Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2002), 215–230.

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