Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 27, 2021
Georg Simmel Georg Simmel: Essays on Art and Aesthetics Ed. Austin Harrington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 392 pp. Paper $35.00 (9780226621098)

In the intellectual history of European modernity, Georg Simmel (1858–1918) remains the prototype for the extraterritorial thinker. Estranged from institutions of official culture, such a figure is singularly attuned to the dynamism of modern life, a sensitive diagnostician who finds in the most fleeting phenomena visible symptoms of a fundamentally altered relationship between objective conditions and states of mind. The centrality of works of art and literature for Simmel’s reflections on society and the money economy galvanized his students, such as Siegfried Kracauer and Ernst Bloch, who radically reconfigured philosophical writing in confrontation with the rise of mass media and politics. A substantial collection of Simmel’s influential essays on modern culture, fashion, and urban types has long been available to readers in English translation. With the publication of Essays on Art and Aesthetics, these readers at last have the opportunity to appreciate the full scope of his outsize legacy for media and literary theory in the twentieth century, which positions the perception of the work of art at the heart of any understanding of psychology, capitalism, and social life.

With the exception of a few essays reprinted from previous anthologies, the texts presented in this volume have been masterfully translated by Austin Harrington, who has judiciously organized them into eight sections. The first three—“Aesthetics,” “Materials, Functions, Institutions,” and “Style and Representation”—tackle core concerns of Simmel’s philosophy, such as the autonomy of art and the self, the limits of style and genre, the mutually sustaining relationships between the individual and society, and the phenomenology of perception. These topics permeate the remaining sections, dedicated to landscape, portraiture, theater, sculpture, and literature. This structure does not reflect any investment on Simmel’s part in medium specificity; rather, each cluster offers access to the full sweep of his aesthetic thought in miniature. The individual essays span from 1890, with the first text Simmel published about art (“On Art Exhibitions”), to the final months of his life in 1918. Throughout these pages, a highly personal canon of artists and writers brings Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe into orbit with contemporaries such as Auguste Rodin, Constantin Meunier, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Stefan George.

Simmel repeatedly extrapolates his conclusions about aesthetic perception to social structures. In nearly every text, he asks how it is possible to function simultaneously as a part of a larger whole and as an autonomous totality. This conundrum of identity in difference is intimately linked with “the problem of life in modern society, the problem of how, from absolutely diverse and at the same time equally justified individual personalities, some kind of organic corporate unity can come to exist” (238). For Simmel, the very visibility of an object indexes the specific range of human consciousness. It allows the philosopher to gauge the limits of appearance and disappearance, disclosure and withdrawal, that operate analogously within the spheres of theology or jurisprudence. Sculpture emerges out of the resistance that the vital energy of creation poses to the force of gravity, whereas landscape coalesces from extremes of scale. In short, the work of art registers the confrontation between will and material that permeates all of life.

As an artifact of the freedom of the human spirit to “overcome” itself and the conditions that sustain it, a work of art rehearses the paradoxes facing the individual in modernity. Portraiture offers a particularly compelling solution to the coherence of parts into a whole and of efforts to bridge the divide between objective constraints and subjective experience. We resist seeing the face of another human being as mere appearance, unhinged from any meaning or inherent lawfulness. The unity of the manifold in a face—analogous to the collectivity of a government or spiritual congregation—expresses the hidden workings of a soul, whose only proof of existence lies in the empathic recognition of the beholder. In this way, the true portrait presents an image of time structured by “necessity,” rather than as an “all-purpose container for any random elapse of events” (239). A photograph, by contrast, is a record of the alienation of appearance from soul and, as such, remains an “excerpt from unmediated nature” rather than a work of art (150). This statement does not express a naive faith in the transparency of photographs to the “real” so much as it reminds us of their essential mobility. When a photograph is positioned against the centered unity of the artwork, we may appreciate that the photograph, like any other natural form caught in the flux of life, “is a mere transitional point for continuously flowing energies and materials, comprehensible only from what has preceded it” (148). Whereas Kracauer would later locate the “redemption of physical reality” in photographic media in his Theory of Film (Oxford University Press, 1960), Simmel reserves this distinction for the work of art, above all in his essays on Rodin, which have been collected and translated here by Harrington for the first time in full. Nevertheless, in his passing references to photography, he advances a latent theory of the technological image predicated upon the crucial insight that all photographs only ever exist in series and in circulation.

Simmel further clarifies his understanding of the autonomy of art in a group of extraordinary essays dedicated to a variety of parerga, such as the art exhibition, the picture frame, and the handle—mediating forms that appear to be both integral to and separate from the works they supplement. These forms rehearse the contradiction that the work itself presents—namely, that “the image of being must finally also be a part of being” (158). Art is a portal that permits us to apprehend our existence, which otherwise evades direct experience. Marginal phenomena assume outsize importance as diagnostic tools. In his beautiful meditation “The Handle” (1905), for instance, he recognizes how the grip of a vessel deflects attention away from itself to orient the imbrication of body and world. It serves as an emblem “of the ways in which men and things belong to each other, of the fact that they are simultaneously inside and outside one another” (165).

In a related vein, the modern art exhibition becomes a privileged site from which to examine the effects of metropolitan life and the division of labor. Here we find the germ of Simmel’s pivotal essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). The exhibition, like the city itself, is less a built environment than a psychic landscape, and a blasé attitude is our only prophylactic against the shocks that involuntarily result through close confrontation with extremes. The unified “man of action” who defined culture and politics in Jacob Burckhardt’s Renaissance gives way to the urban mass, and the modern personality disintegrates under specialization into a neurasthenic hypersensitivity that is also a kind of numbness. The heterogeneity of the modern art exhibition supplants the unity of the masterpiece, exemplified by Michelangelo’s great commissions from the Medici and the Vatican—Gesamtkunstwerke in all but name. Under such conditions, artistic life “can no longer be glimpsed through any one personality but only in diverse cooperative functions” (137). Here, as in numerous texts in this volume, Simmel makes explicit that such conclusions are grounded in a conception of work that is as indebted to the modern labor movement as it is to any metaphysical relationship between “soul” and matter.

Readers have ample opportunity in these pages to explore Simmel’s meditations on cultural difference, the relationship between the individual life and typologies of form, and the means by which a given period or place can be “minted” by style. Yet it is in the final essays on Goethe that we find his most breathtaking passages on method. Here, Simmel forcefully rejects the conceit that we obtain any understanding of a work as art by unearthing a prior model for it:

That such overvaluation of the model has wide currency in popular and academic notions of art alike is no coincidence. It arises from a mechanistic-mathematizing worldview that believes it has comprehended all reality when and only when it has reduced it to copies of things. In finding something in reality to which the work of art apparently bears likeness or “sameness,” we are supposed to have “explained” it. And to this deification of likeness is then added the vulgarest notion that between cause and effect some likeness must also exist. (345)

Simmel challenges us to acknowledge the alterity of the work of art in the realm of the visible and the resistance it poses to the homogeneity of chronological succession. Goethe’s characters manifest the insight that “human beings are only truly and fully individuals when they are not merely points in the world but themselves worlds.” If this is true, he concludes, “it is meaningful to speak of an infinity of possible world-pictures and of each person being the center and law of such a world-picture only when no one picture can be substituted for another and when each increases the wealth and diversity of melodies in which the human mind can transpose the totality of all existence” (357–58). In the shift from a definition of the individual as embedded in a single world to one that expresses the infinity of possible “world-pictures,” the work of art itself comes to model a utopia of radical difference, one where we may hold out the hope that existence might always be otherwise.

Megan R. Luke
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California