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The Best Books on Philosophical Stakes of Art | Five Books Expert Recommendations
Five Books
10-12 minutes

What you mean by ‘the philosophical stakes of art’?

I’ve been deeply interested in the relation between art and philosophy for many
years. My most sympathetic and engaged readers include a number of philosophers.
They tend to be supportive of what I do, which is not always the case with art
historians. I believe that art, and modern art in particular, does a great deal of
philosophical work. The kind of reflection that takes place in philosophy carries
on elsewhere in the culture, and very significantly in art. My interests have
always crossed between art and philosophy, without ever leaving historical thinking

Your first author, Denis Diderot, seems to share that point of view.

Yes, Diderot is a great philosopher and arguably the best-ever art critic. My own
work as an art historian has engaged closely with his, especially Salons (the art-
critical texts) and his related writings on painting and the stage. In my early
book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, I
discovered something about Diderot previously not recognised: the importance he
placed on the relation between the painting and the viewer. That issue was also
central to the development of French painting in the mid-18th century – between
Chardin and Greuze – and Manet and his generation over 100 years later.

It’s a topic with resonance beyond the modern period. The basic idea is that
painters inevitably construct a certain sort of relationship with the viewer. In
the 1750s, Diderot put forward a set of claims as to how that relationship was
supposed to work for a painting to be successful. I argue in my book that those
claims and imperatives turned out to be foundational for modern painting and modern
art generally.

This relationship between viewer and art continues with your second book, Maurice
Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Yes. Merleau-Ponty was a French philosopher from the 40s and 50s, a contemporary of
Sartre and De Beauvoir. I read him for the first time in my early 20s before his
works were translated. He represents so-called ‘existential phenomenology’. Of
fundamental importance to him was that we are ‘embodied’ creatures, not disembodied
perceptual systems and free-floating intelligences. He understood painting to be
involved in a network of relations in which embodiment is crucial to the creation
and experience of the work.

Why does he consider embodiment so important?

He takes it to be a fundamental truth about our being in the world. This truth is
something that philosophy has tended to ignore, or minimise, in the interest of a
more abstract view. He insists we are in the world, not as minds conjoined to
mechanical bodies, but as fully incarnated creatures. In his view, perception
itself is a bodily activity. We are not separate from the world; we are woven into
it. He sees certain painters – Cézanne, obviously – as registering the fact of
embodiment in their art. His early essay, Cézanne’s Doubt, is one of the great
texts on 20th century painting.

Merleau-Ponty has meant a great deal to me. My own feelings about art as a young
man were intensely ‘bodily’. It was marvellous to discover that’s how he thought it
should be. The consideration of embodiment has been basic to almost everything I’ve
done in art criticism and art history until now.

Specifically, the issue of embodiment plays a key role in my Caravaggio book.

Because of the brilliance of the realism in his paintings, they have tended to be
seen in ‘optical’ terms – as if depiction in his art is equivalent to what one
might see in a mirror. I’m not claiming this is wholly wrong, but that manifestly
at work there’s a relation to his own embodiment and activity in making the
paintings – and that we, as viewers, relate to them in a similar way.

Your next choice, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays by Shakespeare, is written by

a friend of yours, Stanley Cavell.

Cavell is an American philosopher in his mid-eighties who taught for many years at
Harvard. We met in 1962 and became close friends when he began teaching there a
year later. I’m not alone in finding his books and essays the most profound and
helpful works we have on Wittgenstein, arguably the deepest philosopher of the 20th
century. My own work has a close connection to both thinkers.

I could have selected Cavell’s philosophical masterpiece, The Claim of Reason, but
I chose the Shakespeare book because it has a bearing on my thinking in The Moment
of Caravaggio. Shakespeare and Caravaggio were almost exact contemporaries. The
great tragedies date from the 1590s and early 1600s, and Caravaggio’s art comes
from this period. He died in 1610.

Different as the two men and their cultures were, it makes perfect sense to think
of them as contemporaries. Their respective visions are, in a certain sense,
complementary, because certain philosophical issues are at stake in their bodies of
work. The most important is scepticism. Cavell’s key insight into Shakespearean
tragedy is that it expresses the prevalence of a sceptical worldview – we cannot
truly know what’s in someone else’s mind. This, Cavell suggests, is why Othello
falls prey so easily to Iago. Othello is startled by the sexual feelings he has
awakened in Desdemona and is appalled not to know everything she’s thinking. Has
she really been unfaithful? How can he be certain? This is also why Leontes in The
Winter’s Tale conceives the insane idea that his wife has been unfaithful with his
best friend, and that his son – his spitting image – is not, in fact, his son.
Cavell detects a philosophical underside to such jealousy, the demand that another
person – typically a loved person – be entirely transparent to one’s own, not quite
sane, desire for absolute knowledge. All this connects closely with Cavell’s
understanding of Wittgenstein and with an emphasis on what Cavell calls
‘acknowledgment in place of knowledge’.

In Caravaggio, we have something very different – the emergence of a new and

powerful convention in painting that I call ‘absorption’. There’s a painting of a
young woman sitting on a low chair, looking down, with her hands crossed in her
lap. A single tear glistens on her face but she isn’t otherwise in a state of
obvious distress. But we know she represents the Magdalene reflecting on her past.
The critical rhetoric of the painting testifies to its ability to persuade viewers
that the young woman is deeply moved. Too deeply, we might say, for outward
expression of her feelings. This is, I would claim, the magic of absorption. As
viewers, we are somehow led to project into the painting the intense feeling that
we think we find there.

Put this alongside Shakespeare and it can seem they are antithetical. No one is
actually there in the Caravaggio: it’s just a depiction. But we’re led to attribute
great emotional depth to the figure. It’s as if we’ve been given unimpeded access
to the contents of her mind. In other words, we have an extraordinary situation.
Radical scepticism leads to stupendous tragedy in England, and the ‘invention of
absorption’ holds scepticism at bay in contemporary Rome. The fact that these two
major artistic achievements took place at the same time is deeply interesting.

Your next choice is Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting by
Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey.

I’ve included one art-history book. It’s a terrific study of a magnificent painter,
French by birth, who lived and worked in Rome. Poussin was from the generation that
came along after Caravaggio, and he represents a kind of recuperation of classical
values after the truly volcanic upheaval caused by Caravaggio’s art and life. He
famously remarked that Caravaggio was born to destroy painting.

Cropper and Dempsey’s book is a masterly study of Poussin’s art, thought and
milieu, including his relation to the Stoic philosophers and the great French
writer, Michel de Montaigne. But I also chose it because they were my colleagues at
Johns Hopkins University for at least 20 years and I could never have written The
Moment of Caravaggio without their friendship, teaching and support. Both have
written brilliantly about Caravaggio. I dedicated my own book to them in
recognition of the intellectual debt I owe them.

Your final choice is Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann.

I almost surprised myself when I included this. But it’s a book I love. Writing
during World War Two, Mann reflects on modernism in the arts, the tragic history of
modern Germany and the persistence of Nietzsche in the German imagination. It’s a
work of extraordinary intellectual seriousness and ambition.

It may seem risky to say this, but why should historical writing about art not try
to achieve a comparable seriousness and ambition? Could not a study of Caravaggio
or Manet, or some other important figure, aspire to a similar intensity and depth
of engagement? Some studies have tried: T.J. Clark’s chapter on Malevich and
communism in his great book, Farewell to an Idea, is a case in point.

Why do you think people writing about figures in the arts don’t aspire to that kind
of seriousness?

I don’t know. It would probably strike most art historians as hubristic, as going
beyond the accepted norms of their discipline. For me, Mann’s great novel is a
fictional ideal of what it might mean to grasp art in its philosophical depth.

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