Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2001
Mark A. Cheetham Kant, Art and Art History: Moments of Discipline Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 232 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $54.95 (0521800188)

Mark Cheetham’s book, Kant, Art, and Art History: Moments of Discipline, addresses the problem implied by the critic Thomas McEvilley’s quip: “Kant and Greenberg are both things of the past and we should just get over them. Yet somehow, they keep arising from the grave like zombies” (“The Tomb of the Zombie,” Art Criticism, 1998). Other critics and historians, such as Paul Crowther, want to excise Immanuel Kant from art history, due to amply documented misreadings of the philosopher’s work, but Cheetham seeks rigorously to explore the uses to which Kant has been put—appropriately or not. By so doing he intervenes provocatively in the theoretical debates about what a proper reading (of a text, of a painting) might be, or whether there can be only misreadings. More broadly, Cheetham refocuses the decades-old question about the boundaries of art history. There are many who have sought to maintain the purity of the history of art and have warned against “foreign infection” from fields such as literary criticism and psychoanalysis. But Cheetham argues convincingly that the very principle of disciplinary boundary came from philosophy, and in particular from Kant, and is thus always already an “import.”

Since Kant’s aesthetics, articulated most comprehensively in his Critique of Judgment (1790), concern reception rather than the art object itself, Cheetham declares that he, too, will approach reception (that of Kant rather than that of art). In Chapter 1, Cheetham proposes the term “plasmatics” to describe an organic, fluid model of reception that acknowledges—indeed expects and embraces—misreadings of the sort that concern Crowther. Following the plasmatic model, subject and object interact “within a ‘space’ of multidimensional and shifting cultural intensities, and…the specific contours of this matrix are inflected historically and theoretically by the forces of which it is comprised” (25). Cheetham sets up Michael Ann Holly’s notion of “prefigurement” as a negative counter-model, but in fact his own project appears marked by a kind of prefigurement. In brief, Holly suggests in Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image (Cornell University Press, 1996) that the object at least in part structures its own reading. Cheetham prefers to consider that Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus,” the institutional and social environment within which one becomes an active subject, directs the reading. That is, one sees the work differently (it becomes a different work), depending on one’s training and milieu. But if the work does not affect the viewer, potentially everything guides his or her viewing of the work except the work, a position I doubt Cheetham would endorse. Could we posit instead that the work immediately—and plasmatically—informs the habitus from which one views this work and others? Holly’s theory would seem to support this proposal, in that she claims that along with the work’s affecting what can be said about it, “the questions that the art historian asks will elicit different answers from the work of art” (24). Cheetham, by letting Kant’s emphasis on reception guide his own inquiry, in fact reveals how productive prefigurement can be. Holly’s principle of prefigurement, however, is not simply a matter of choice; one doesn’t choose to follow the suggestion of the object but is, rather, set upon a path of inquiry by the object. Cheetham’s own text and approach, in my view, provide proof that the latter also happens, for is not his insistence on the relative muteness of objects (in favor of the agency provided by the viewer’s field) in some sense Kantian? Kant posited, after all, that we can never know the object in itself. Of course Kant’s subject is not constructed by the habitus, but recent theorists of the subject (Peter Dews, Joan Copjec) have shown that Kant’s subject is hardly as autonomous and unitary as it has long been understood to be. In short, Cheetham’s concept of plasmatics is marked by Kant, his object. This is not a defect of the book, but rather an instructive instance of that which Cheetham seeks to articulate, namely, the complex interaction of subject and object.

In the chapters that follow, Cheetham explores particular “moments” of plasmatic Kantian reception. In Chapter 2 he focuses on Rome in the late 1790s. Kant’s transcendental theories seem to obviate the contingency of place and time, yet, as Cheetham demonstrates, the latter dramatically affected the understanding of Kant in this setting. The contemporary German-speaking art circle in Rome, including the painter Jakob Asmus Carstens and the critic Carl Ludwig Fernow, learned Kant in a politically charged atmosphere: Napoleon was actively “liberating” Italians from the Austrians at the time. Citing letters and records of lectures, Cheetham shows that traveling artists supplied the expatriates with their desired texts by Kant, which were read as complementary. That is, Kant envisioned aesthetics as separate from politics (in addition to setting and time), but his short political book, Perpetual Peace (1795), was understood to be a companion piece to the Critique of Judgment. Both, after all, emphasize freedom, the principle that serves as the fulcrum of Cheetham’s adroit inquiry here.

Chapter 3 addresses contested Kantian moments in the twentieth century, showing that attention to signs of Kant complicates and enriches our understanding of critics’ and artists’ trajectories. First Cheetham takes on the famous “turn” in Erwin Panofsky’s writings after he left Germany for the United States in the 1930s. Panofsky has been read as having become less theoretical and more empirical after immigrating, but Cheetham makes a compelling case for Panofsky’s continued employment of Kant, especially as a sign of humanism that might combat authoritarianism. Cheetham then explores the Kant-and-Cubism conundrum. For critics since the 1910s, including Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, “the analytic/synthetic distinction, the notions of the thing-in-itself and disinterestedness, and the formal autonomy of the work of art provided nothing less than a way of conceptualizing and justifying cubism” (78). Yet Cubists may or may not ever have read Kant, so is the Kantian analysis appropriate? Cheetham offers an emphatic Yes, arguing for the historical relevance of “so many actors around Cubism [choosing] Kantian terms” (80), but his admittedly preliminary analysis leaves the specifics of that relevance for an understanding of cubism to future study. Finally, Cheetham explores the Kantianism of Clement Greenberg, whose depth and thoroughness have been doubted. Cheetham argues astutely that Greenberg “was anything but a systematic reader of Kant,” but that he had an “intuitive” sympathy for the philosopher. “Despite what Kant would have to assess as a lapse into empiricism, Greenberg’s work…can be read not only as an increasingly doctrinaire formalism…but also as a similarly disciplined refusal to comment on art’s interests beyond its own formal limits” (88, 91). Thus Greenberg’s practice mirrors Kant’s theory in a way invisible to gatekeepers of “correct” Kantianism but potentially related to his own “zombie”-like perpetual presence in art history.

In Chapter 4 Cheetham turns his attention to recent aesthetic interest in Kant in France, particularly by Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. In his tightest and most illuminating analysis, he suggests that the current fascination with the sublime has to do less with boundlessness than with limits. Reading Kant through Derrida, Cheetham examines the former’s analysis of the nature of the sublime as exemplified in the experience of viewing the pyramids, and finds that it is surprisingly contingent upon precise distancing and framing of the monuments by the viewer. Cheetham also offers a prescient critique of Lyotard: While Lyotard’s formulation of the sublime does emphasize its boundless unrepresentability, the theorist simultaneously sets a disciplinary border by claiming that “sublimity is no longer in art, but in speculation on art” (“The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” in The Lyotard Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989). But some contemporary artworks, such as those of Christian Eckart and Sheila Ayearst, play with the sublime in marvelous ways that, as Cheetham shows, soundly refute Lyotard’s categorical assertion.

The ideas in Chapter 5 are unexpected, but provocative nonetheless. Here Cheetham suggests how many practices produce “Kant.” He traces portraits of the philosopher—that is, Kant as subject for art or Kant in art. Included are bizarre tales of exhumation and the phrenological mapping of Kant’s all-too-empirical body, and Cheetham draws these together to underline his general theory of the ongoing plasmatic reception of Kant. In this book Cheetham crosses many borders as he convinces his reader that Kant has played and continues to play an integral part in art and art history, just as art played an indispensable role for Kant and continues to do so in the broader field of philosophical aesthetics. Cheetham does not tackle the question of whether art history is also necessary for aesthetics and philosophy, but his book suggests that it would behoove philosophers and those who want to know Kant’s legacy to tarry in that question as well.

Jenny Anger
Professor, Department of Art History, Grinnell College