Monday, 29 April 2013

Kant Cubed

A Cubism Reader
Documents And Criticism, 1906-1914
Mark Antliff, Patricia Leighten (ed)
University of Chicago Press

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

A Cubism Reader

A Cubism Reader is a new collection of primary-source material on the conceptual foundations of the cubist movement between 1906 and 1914. It is a sympathetically critical response to the only other book in English that contained similar material: Edward F. Fry's Cubism (published in 1966). It is sympathetic in that it recognizes Fry's interpretive importance in the history of cubist scholarship. Fry is honoured here for originally "initiating the important project of understanding the cubist movement through its primary sources." However, it is also critical because Fry's book is unapologetically modern. His editorial selections and introductory explanation of the texts are based upon his reading of the philosopher of modernity: Immanuel Kant. Why be critical about a product of Kant's critical philosophy?
     Fry is taken to task for promoting the idea that the cast of Kant's critical shadow makes cubism conceptually possible and artistically necessary. In their introduction Antliff and Leighten argue that this reliance on Kant is dated, limited, and overdetermined, especially in light of a new critical discourse that has emerged over the past thirty years within cubist studies. To understand why taking issue with Fry matters, it helps to understand his own brand of Kantian aesthetics and how it contributed toward a philosophy of art that has outlived its usefulness.
     Fry trained in art history at Harvard in the 1960s during the heyday of formalist approaches to the early history of modern art. Formalism, as an aesthetic doctrine, is based on the idea that to interpret a painting is to indicate and explain its form: the perceptual elements of an artwork and the relationship holding between them. These related (formal) elements are the primary concern of aesthetic value. These elements, in turn, are said to be independent of the objective meaning, reference, or utility of a work of art. The turn to the subject in modern aesthetics delimits these concerns by default.
     While the philosophical roots of formalism are Kantian in both conceptual origin and perceptual substance, its influence as an aesthetic doctrine owes much to the critical scholarship of Clement Greenberg. In the heavily anthologized essay "Modernist Painting" Greenberg argues that Kant is “the first real modern” because he was the first to critique the means of criticism itself (most critically in his Critique Of Pure Reason). “Western civilization is not the first to turn around and question its own foundations,” Greenberg writes, “but it is the civilization that has gone furthest in doing so. I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant.”
     What makes Kant’s critique unique in the history of philosophy is that it did not follow the standard rule of criticizing a subject from the outside, as was the de facto method during the Enlightenment. By “outside” I mean not adopting the premises of the subject of critique, but rather assuming other premises as a basis for critiquing it. (The Enlightenment critique of religion was an outside job.) Rather, Kant criticizes from the inside by using the critical procedures themselves upon the subject of criticism.
     In his case, Kant used logic in order to place limits upon logic (subjecting his subject), thereby reducing it down to its critical essence and essential function. Kant’s logical “antinomies” (contradictions which necessarily follow from our attempt to conceive the nature of transcendent reality) within his Critique are an example of what you get when “logic goes subjective” (as it were). The point here is not to subvert the subject of concern, but to more consistently entrench it within its own methods and motives. This turn to the subject as the object of subjective concern is the essence of Kantian modernism.

Edward F. Fry


     Under the sway of Greenberg, Fry had his own Kantian historical narrative to tell between the analytic and synthetic stages of early cubism. Antliff and Leighten attempt to go beyond Fry by placing these primary-source materials within a larger more up-to-date context. In this sense, the significance of A Cubism Reader consists in reintroducing these important documents within an unapologically postmodern context (and by 'postmodern' I mean post-Kantian).
     Fry's Kantian reading of the influence of cubism in modern art gets reduced to a brilliantly absurd end in the abstract painting of Jackson Pollock (Greenberg's example of a great painter). It is Pollock's work that indicates the necessity of going beyond Kant in our critical approach to art. On this reading the turn to the subject in Kant's critical philosophy is reduced to absurdity in abstract painting. Where can you go after Pollock's Lavender Mist (let alone Full Fathom Five)? You can't go anywhere. Pollock knew this most of all.
     This is not to downplay abstract expressionism. The distinction must be made between how abstract painting broke away from late cubism in painterly talent, and yet still remained cubist in subjective intent. Cubism and abstract expressionism are both movements in painting that are characterized by the subjective will to abstraction. Abstract expressionism in the life and work of Jackson Pollock is the reductio ad absurdum of Kantian modernism. It represents a dead end (and in the case of Pollock, this is literally true).
     This is one important reason why Antliff and Leighten take issue with Fry's Kantian reading of the conceptual foundations of cubism. It is not only dated, limited, and overdetermined, but it can also lead to disastrous consequences in the lives of artists who espouse this subjectivist philosophy of art (whether consciously or not). Post-Kantian art, therefore, is a renewed turn to the object-matter of painting. The positive results show for themselves.
     For example, in questioning Fry's formalist and hierarchical narrative of cubism (where Braque and Picasso are seen as the major innovators of the movement, while artists like Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, and Fernand L├ęger who came after Braque and Picasso are seen as minor imitators), this new approach to cubism makes it possible to interpret all of the cubist artists on a level aesthetic field. This also helps introduce new questions about objective meaning, reference, and utility in the work of cubist art, questions which in the modern period lacked a vocabulary for their expression.
     The most promising consequence of this turn to the object-matter in painting is how these source materials can be used as a way to add historic weight to the profound claim made by the Canadian abstract painter Kazuo Nakamura that the artist and the scientist do the same thing but in different ways: they both recognize patterns in nature (physical, geometric, and mathematical). With these primary-source materials available in A Cubism Reader, it is now possible to talk about the objective significance of the geometry of cubes (for example), and how that stress reminds us of just how realistic these cubist paintings can be seen, at least when it comes to the artistic geometry of physics at the turn of the 21st century.

Edward F. Fry. Cubism. London: Thames & Hudson. 1966.
Francis Frascina, Charles Harrison (ed). Modern Art And Modernism: A Critical Anthology. New York: Harper & Row. 1987.
Mark Antliff, Patricia Leighten (ed). A Cubism Reader: Documents And Criticism, 1906-1914. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press. 2008.

Friday, 26 April 2013


By Julie Hinton Walker

Girl At The Window, 1940
Miller Brittain (1912-1968)
Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

With nose and tongue, seek the flavours of nature.
With ears, grasp a song from the wind.
With eyes and hands, pull colour from light.
With an artist’s imagination, be guided.