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In 1783, Reverend Johann Friedrich Zöllner posed a question to the Berlinische Monatsschrift’s readers: “What is the Enlightenment?” One year later, Immanuel Kant, professor of philosophy at the University of Königsberg, responded with an aphorism: “Sapere aude!” or “Dare to Know!” Kant went on to define the Enlightenment as the “resolution and courage” to use one’s own reason to comprehend the world, unrestricted by prejudice and the guidance of others. Two hundred years after Kant’s response, Michel Foucault called attention to the temporal structure of this question. Zöllner and Kant, Foucault argued, described the Enlightenment in the present tense, as something that is. Yet, for Foucault, this self-reflective attitude also advanced a definition of the Enlightenment as a transhistorical operation; as “a mode of relating to contemporary reality . . . rather than as a period of history” (“What is Enlightenment?” in The essential works of Michel Foucault, 1954–1984, 1997).
In 2022, the aphorism “Dare to Know” framed the Harvard Art Museums’ latest exhibition of eighteenth-century prints and drawings. As curators Elizabeth M. Rudy and Kristel Smentek explain on the exhibition website, Kant’s proposition extends visitors an invitation to explore the world critically: “to embrace the Enlightenment’s same spirit of inquiry—to investigate, to persuade, and to imagine.” The curators deployed these three infinitives as the organizing pillars of the exhibition, structuring the development of its narrative into three segments that prompt the viewer to discover the inquisitive, ideological, and visionary dimensions of the works on display.
While scientific instruments, such as a dry card compass and a portable ottery were featured in the show, the overwhelming emphasis was on drawings and other works on paper. These represented a great range of production and reproduction techniques that cast light on the central role of graphic arts played in the Enlightenment project. Etchings, engravings, aquatints, and mezzotints conversed with a selection of ephemera, scientific treatises, literary titles, and other bound volumes, offering a comprehensive overview of the media landscape in the eighteenth century. For the curators, this constellation of objects not only captured the political, cultural, and social currents of the time, but also cast light on the ability of reproducible media to become “agents in the propagation of ideas and the construction of blind spots” (2). Put another way, the curators proposed that the images and texts presented in the exhibition were not mere relics of a historical period, bringing the past to life for the visitors, but could also serve as tools to scrutinize, question, and re-imagine fundamental tenets of the Enlightenment episteme, in the spirit of Foucault’s meta-historical proposition.
The invitation “to embrace the Enlightenment’s spirit of inquiry” extends here to the scrutiny of the period itself, its “achievements, . . . failures, and complicated legacies.” In past decades, scholars have come to criticize the Enlightenment. The admirable conquests of science and philosophy and the revolutionary demands in political governance can no longer be considered apart from the period’s darker sides, including the long-lasting effects of exploitative colonialism and enslavement. The curators take on a critical eye, examining the Enlightenment in present tense and in plural: the show posits that there are multiple, irreconcilable, and contradictory Enlightenments, some even hostile to what the eighteenth century defined as human.
This fragmentary and often contradictory interpretation of the Enlightenment characterized the organization of the exhibits in the show, creating tension between the three thematic sections and the constellation of viewpoints embedded in each. In the opening gallery, the visitor was prompted to “investigate” striking visualizations of nature (ranging from microscopic observations of insects to the moon’s first detailed maps) and culture, featuring various ethnographic, anthropological, and religious themes, inspired by overseas travel and colonization. While the images showcased in this room read collectively as an index of the Enlightenment quest for knowledge, they also make legible the critical role of printed media in shifting and expanding established patterns of knowledge production, dissemination, and interpretation. Consider Jan L’Admiral’s astoundingly realistic illustrations of anatomical specimens made with a three-plate color mezzotint process. Their scale aimed to reproduce the operations of the anatomist, thereby establishing an interactive relationship with the reader. The prints also juxtapose fragments of black and white epidermis of an Ethiopian woman and other parts of her corpse. As Smentek notes in the catalog, the “representation of a Black body in pieces . . . exemplifies the ways in which the apparently impartial investigation of human variety could both affirm the unity of humankind and deny it” (218–19).
The contents of the second gallery further highlighted the devaluation of human life that upheld the Enlightenment’s more commonly extolled values of expanded knowledge. Here, “the show gets serious,” as Rudy mentioned in a tour, by foregrounding the rhetorical force of printed images that were summoned to “persuade” the audience at times of crisis. Visitors are confronted with a pair of slave ship representations that powerfully illustrate Enlightenment cruelties and paradoxes. Both drawings feature large vessels in plan and section, where Black bodies appear stacked in dehumanizing conditions. Despite their visual similarities, however, the frames contain conflicting messages: one celebrates effectiveness in the distribution of human cargo; the other calls for slavery’s abolition.
The final gallery repeated some of these themes, clustering utopian and dystopian figurations of antiquity, distant cultures, and the political turmoil of the artists’ time. Sequential scenes from the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions demonstrated the curators’ call to “imagine” into a distinctively political field. Jean-Baptiste Chapuy’s infernal vision of the rebellion in Saint-Domingue in 1793, View of the Burning of the City of Cap Français on June 21, 1793 (1794), was paired with James Gillray’s caricature Presages of the Millenium (1795) satirizing exaggerated responses to the “apocalyptic” events of the French Revolution in Britain, as well as with Jean Demosthene Dugourc’s effort to mythologize the latter as it unfolded as a triumph of republicanism in Vue du Champ de Mars à l’instant du Serment (fête de la fédération) (1790). The dreamlike effect of nearby sketches, aquarelles, and etchings representing traveling expeditions contrast the anxiety invoked by these political events. Views from the emperor’s residence in Beijing and scenes of everyday life among the Nootka people in present-day Vancouver Island converse with themes chosen from classical antiquity, prompting viewers to contemplate these revolutionary events in a global and transhistorical context. Overall, the exhibition masterfully navigates the complexities of utopian and dystopian imaginings, historical movements, and their artistic interpretations, culminating in a thought-provoking exploration that underscores the vital role of visual culture in shaping collective memory and political consciousness.
The multiplicity of interpretative threads represented by the exhibition’s infinitives—investigate, persuade, imagine—is even more apparent in the catalog, where the three categories multiply to twenty-four. Each entry corresponds to a term from A to Z, so the book’s structure reflects the exhibition’s encyclopedic ambitions. But the catalog extends its interpretative scope, as two dozen authors bring a range of expertise from religion to economics, while still rooting their textual analysis in the power of visual resources. For example, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s take on eroticism in the chapter “XXX” defines libertinism as a visual phenomenon, redoubling the show’s invitation to see graphic sources not only as illustrations, but also as active agents of socio-cultural processes. In a similar vein, the entries on “Lava,” “Venus,” and “Skin,” highlight essential affinities between production methods and depicted subjects. These focused entries are more incisive and successful than those attempting to define broader terms, such as Edouard Kopp’s “Nature” and “Expedition,” which hew to a canonical survey format. The former would benefit by considering monstrosity, inhospitable environments, and the unnatural conditions haunting the Enlightenment imaginary. On the other hand, the “Expedition” entry lacks recognition of the violence and exploitation that accompanied colonial explorations, especially when compared to the significant emphasis placed on the two slave ships in the exhibition. Paul Friedland’s entry on “Cruelty,” much like Smentek’s “Skin,” offer more nuanced approaches, eloquently tracing the conditions under which the Enlightenment inquiry on human sensibility, in all its corporeal and psychological complexity, shaded into the enjoyment of horrific spectacles, such as the public execution of Robert-François Damiens in 1757.
Taken together, the show and the catalog made for a multivalent and insightful read of the Enlightenment. Appropriately chosen to illustrate the curatorial prompt, Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty’s colorful mezzotint Muscles of the Back (1746) echoes the call to scrutinize (human) nature, while also alluding to the cruelty and contradictions embedded in this process. Looking at d’Agoty’s woman, skinned and laid bare, one cannot help but think of the Sadean excesses reached by eighteenth-century imagination, as well as to those dehumanizing operations unfolding outside the confines of the printed page. In the second room of the show, an oval display featuring ephemera, such as royal ball invitations, receipts, and lottery tickets, appeared to be unrelated to the gravity of these questions, as if belonging to a different world. Lined with a mirror backdrop, this custom-made frame, exquisitely designed by assistant director of Exhibitions Elie Glyn, blended the objects with a reflection of the visitors in the room. This gesture underscores what scholars, following philosopher Jürgen Habermas, have described as the rise of a public sphere in the Enlightenment (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1989). Looking at it, I wondered whether one could recognize the source of the contradictions that this exhibition invited us to consider. After all, when Reverend Zöllner asked “What is the Enlightenment?” Foucault responded: “Casting light to our fragmented self.”
PhD Harvard University