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Neither aesthetic nor intellectual

December 14, 2012

There’s almost too many definitions of “Romantic” out there to be useful. Here’s one I hadn’t encountered until today: a Romantic artist desires an experience neither intellectual nor aesthetic. He wants to make art, not write philosophy, but he wants “to make a work without a medium.” And understood thus, the premier Romantic artist is… Marcel Duchamp?

Neither The Large Glass nor the Green Box translate into anything else. One of the things Duchamp hated about painting was its sensual quality, what Duchamp often called “retinal.” He didn’t want to make works of art that were to be looked at and interpreted visually. Duchamp didn’t think that art should produce an aesthetic experience, nor did he think it should produce an intellectual experience. Is there anything left to art when you remove both? For the Romantic there is. The more you deemphasize the medium, the closer you get to the inexpressible feeling that can never fully be captured by aesthetic or intellectual experience.

I actually like this line of reasoning quite a bit. Given how polemically most modernists strove to distance themselves from Romanticism, it’s important sometimes to emphasize the continuities, among the most important of which is the centrality to both of the Work of Art that means neither intellectually nor aesthetically. Incidentally, while “aesthetic” here means “through the senses,” the word is nowadays often used to mean this very intuition neither sensory nor theoretical that the Romantics and Modernists desired.

But if they share a goal, they differ in both approach and final result. The Romantics try to ignore the medium; the Modernists try to abstract away from it. The Romantics end up looking foolish; the Modernists–where do they Modernists end up? Depends on which ones you mean. Where does Duchamp end up? Apparently, by the final work of his career, embracing shame:

For the Romantic artist, being ashamed is a good thing. It means that you refuse to confuse the tool with the truth.

That sounds about right. I too approve of shame, though I’d rather it be “guilt.”

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