The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodernism


If the postmodern is a collage—as some critics have suggested—or if collage is itself a kernel of the postmodern, what does this mean for our way of understanding the world? The Frame and the Mirror uses this question to probe the distinctive question of the postmodern situation and the philosophical problem of representation.

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If the postmodern is a collage—as some critics have suggested—or if collage is itself a kernel of the postmodern, what does this mean for our way of understanding the world? The Frame and the Mirror uses this question to probe the distinctive question of the postmodern situation and the philosophical problem of representation.

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Editorial Reviews

Brockelman (philosophy and architecture, Le Moyne College and Syracuse U., Syracuse, NY) examines cubist collage as the subject of what he terms "a philosophical investigation of aesthetic phenomena." To this end, he provides a critique of the theoretical texts of Karsten Harries, Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Slavoj Zizek, and Rosalind Krauss. In addition to the collages made by Bracques, Picasso, and Schwitters, he also considers Peter Greenaway's film , and two urban design proposals based on collage by Koetter and Rowe and Koolhaus. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810117761
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 4/5/2001
  • Series: Philosophy, Literature, and Culture Series
  • Pages: 236
  • Sales rank: 1,416,540
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Brockelman is an assistant professor at Le Moyne College and a lecturer in architecture at Syracuse University.

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The Frame and the Mirror: on Collage and the Postmodern

By Thomas P. Brockelman

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2001 Thomas P. Brockelman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0810117762

Breaking the Frame of Truth

Karsten Harries and the Truth of Art


No doubt modernity represents a fundamental shift in the kind of self-experiences Western societies allow individuals, a change in that sphere of cultural life where the experience of artworks takes place. No doubt, too, this shift emerges in the arts through the growth of what the philosopher Karsten Harries calls "the aesthetic attitude"--an attitude marked by an increasingly subjective emphasis evident in artistic creativity. Aestheticism, at least as a broad social phenomenon, may be uniquely modern. Certainly the peculiar cultural problems that emerge when art ceases to articulate social, cosmological, and ontological truth are uniquely suited to demonstrate the shortcomings of modernity. In the tradition of philosophical positions developed as critiques of the aesthetic turn and of aestheticism--a tradition that includes Kierkegaard and the Heidegger of The Origin of the Work of Art and afterward--Harries's work stands out for its thoroughness. Indeed, the main outlines of Harries's philosophy of art have remained unchanged from The Meaning of Modern Art (1968) throughThe Broken Frame (1989) and The Ethical Function of Architecture (1997). The great service rendered by these works is to have clearly articulated different aspects of the essential questions about the trajectory of art within modernity. The following reflections pursue some of these questions.

For Harries, as for Heidegger before him, the crisis that is modern art is simply an extension of the broader crisis of modern Western culture, a crisis that Harries often evokes through Nietzsche's "death of God." As Harries writes,

Modern art has its origin in the disintegration of the traditional order of values which once assigned to man his proper place; knowing this place, man knew what to do. With the death of God this order has lost both founder and foundation.... The death of God leaves man displaced and without a direction. In a godless world, as Nietzsche pointed out, everything seems to be allowed and by the same token everything threatens to become meaningless. (Meaning, p. 153)

In registering this "loss of place," a situation about which, by the way, Harries maintains a healthy ambivalence, modern art becomes increasingly an art of the subject. Philosophy already anticipates this before Nietzsche in the Kantian articulation of a philosophy of beauty through the mechanism of the "aesthetic" in his Critique of Judgment. With this articulation of a mission for art that removes it entirely from questions of truth, there arises what Harries calls "the aesthetic attitude." According to this attitude, art is purely a reflection of subjectivity--one that attempts to remove itself from all dependence on a transcendent world. Thus, for instance, in Kant the ideal of involvement with the beautiful is articulated in the juridical language of "disinterestedness." To correctly judge beauty (whether in nature or in art) is to maintain a distance from the worldly qualities of the aesthetic object, those that might inspire "interest"--i.e., desire. The aestheticist ideal, like the ideal for the judge, is a kind of recusal from the concerns of the world.

Harries asks that we contrast the "aesthetic attitude" to the attitude of a medieval person in relationship to the Gothic cathedral at a town's center. In this, his favorite symbol for the action of a premodern art, the aesthetic experience of the church is inseparable from its "religious, ethical and practical" functions (Rococo, p. 255). It discloses a view of the inhabitant's world as a whole, and, in so doing, involves her "ceremonially" in that world so as to grant a sense of place there. As Harries puts it, a work of art like a Gothic cathedral operates in a profoundly "ethical" fashion--"ethical in the sense of helping to establish the ethos of a society, which assigns to persons and things their proper places" (Rococo, p. 246).

It's important to pause here for a moment in order to take stock of a couple of vital terms in Harries's vocabulary. Perhaps the central insight running through Harries's work, is that there is some connection between what he calls "truth" in art and our very ability to "find our way" within our world. Now, it's clear from even this much that when Harries writes of such truth, he means more than one might first associate with that word. What's at stake with this "epistemological" function of art is not simply the ability of artworks to deliver pithy insights about human experience or nature--though that possibility follows from the function that he has in mind. Nor, for that matter, does Harries wish to align himself with those who analyze art through semiotics or semiology, discussing it as a form of communication. If that's all that Harries meant by the artwork's "truth," then there would indeed be no necessary path from truth to ethics. Harries does wish to concentrate on something that works of art communicate, but he focuses upon a limited subset of such communication, and one that occurs only with such works. Furthermore, like Heidegger, Harries wishes to radically question the theoretical limitation of art to representation: for both Heidegger and Harries, artworks can, in fact, open up or make possible the truth they reveal.

What sort of "truth" would also present, or even possibly produce, an ethos--a way of life or set of customs? Following the path that, above all, Heidegger has opened, Harries suggests that the truth function of art has something to do with its ability to disclose an entire world. Art is true for Harries not to the extent that it grants us specific "truths" but rather insofar as it reveals to us an entire "meaning context"--a world--within which such truths can emerge. Indeed, and this metaphor will turn out to be vital to my reflections, what is at stake in such truth is the possibility of a revelation of that kind of "whole" in which objects can appear. And yet, this world-disclosing function of art is also in some fundamental way interpretable in the terms of specific truths. That is, while never reducible to a particular fact within the world, the truth revealed by art does privilege some facts, some understandings, over others. It privileges those understandings that it itself produces.

It is from this double nature of the truth he associates with art that Harries derives its ethical function: as both an organizing principle beyond the world of understanding and a part of that world, the truth of art produces a hierarchy of values. Here it's vital to pay attention to that metaphor of "place" and its loss that Harries uses to define the modern situation itself. To "know one's place" is only possible if one can also know the whole within which this position is defined and in such a way as to understand the relationship between the whole and its parts. That is, in its truth, art operates like a kind of map: it pictures or represents the boundaries of experience and does so by showing the relationship between those boundaries and specific points contained within them. Insofar as this trope of the map holds, such truth is literally useful for helping us to "know our place," just as you might consult a map to locate your home city.

But implicit in this "making sense of" is a more active overtone of ethos, one that can also be derived from the map metaphor underlying Harries's discussions; for the most part, we use maps, not simply to locate ourselves but to get from one place to another. Harries repeatedly extends the cartographic imagery of his thought by insisting that the truth function of art helps us to "find our way" in the world (Ethical, p. 11). That is, an ethos, in Harries's sense of the word, is a way of actively relating the materials of experience to a whole of meaning. The most intimate bond between truth and ethics in Harries's system lies here: just as a map allows one to "make one's way," overcoming the paralysis of those who "have no idea where they are," the truth of art allows the individual to actively appropriate the meaning context in which he/she lives and to make life choices on the basis of that appropriation.

In this context, you can doubtless see why Harries is so enamored of the Gothic cathedral. As bountiful art historical research indicates, the power of the cathedral for its medieval inhabitants depended precisely on its ability to represent the whole theological/philosophical world of the Middle Ages. Like the philosophical revolution of the thirteenth century, the architecture of the same period aimed at cementing a bond between "faith" and "reason"--between what transcended and organized the world and what could be discovered within it. Thus, for example, while the medieval visitor to Chartres Cathedral would "read" the narratives contained in the stained-glass windows or its statuary, the experience of the church couldn't be reduced to such reading. The representation of totality here also includes the overwhelming nature of the experience it presents. And, indeed, just as the microcosms discovered in every detail of the cathedral structure would seem to both point to and serve the overwhelming whole of the building, so also this totality is itself explicitly subservient to its sacred referent; reason serves faith.

Certainly one function of this hierarchical structure is to help the visitor understand why she should live as she does--as a Christian, a peasant, noble, craftsperson, and so on. You might say that the experience of the cathedral helps the medieval person to make sense of and accept her lot in life. Thus, you can imagine that the biblical stories (say, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, for example) depicted for a largely illiterate population in the church's stained glass would provide a language for understanding moral issues; but they would do this only because they would be literally "illuminated" by the sun passing through the glass, indicating the primary insight of the Gothic/Scholastic ideology about the presence of the divine within the world. The ethical function of art and architecture lies in its ability to help us act in relationship to a totality, in the way that the illuminated window allows the medieval peasant to act in relationship to the sacred.

Within the modern period, however, the demands of aesthetic autonomy, of the self-experience of an alienated subject, eclipse such an ethical function. For Harries, the origin of this change lies in a transformation of the world-disclosing function of art that we've seen already to be essential to it as truth. Under this new model, the exemplary art within the modern period ceases to be architecture: a new aesthetic notion of the art-work's unity tends to favor painting as the model art. Harries writes that, from the end of the eighteenth century onward, a new ideal of organicity (and, thus, of beauty) came to dominate Western art; "not...the subordination but the coordination of parts" controls the way we see the organization of a painting (Rococo, p. 246). That is, a painting produces a space of "harmony" which precisely cannot appear as a limited object. Nor can there be any sense that certain parts or interpretations of the work lie "closer" to its generating principle. There can be no question with this aesthetic unity of any hierarchy of elements within the work-- of the sense that the work has a "head" or a "heart" as the Gothic cathedral has (Rococo, p. 246).

The totality here is defined by its "instantaneous" apprehensibility rather than by the presence within it of an articulated controlling principle. As Michael Fried has eloquently put the modern ideal revealed preeminently in painting, the experience of genuine art (and, therefore, the genuine experience of art) is characterized by a radical "presentness" in which it is "as though, if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it." Indeed, a finite principle is by definition impossible here; for its existence would imply an eccentricity about the otherwise closed aesthetic totality--would imply something that defied inclusion within the instantaneous experience of the work. If such an artwork revealed a privileged element or meaning (a heart, if you will), that signifier would itself always defy the work's claims to presentness. To "get it," one would have to experience first the work and then its unifying principle.

Thus, the work of art is increasingly conceived in terms of aesthetic form, in terms of an "integrity [which] should be such that to add or subtract anything would be to weaken or destroy the aesthetic whole" (Rococo, p. 250). It's as a result of such formalism that the aesthetic attitude "tends toward abstract art," since "the self-sufficiency demanded of the aesthetic experience implies the demand that there be nothing about the aesthetic object that refers the observer beyond itself" (Rococo, p. 252). Thus, instead of representing the world in relationship to its subjects, the work increasingly attempts--in a metaphor that Harries borrows from Baumgarten--to be the world. Such modernist works continue to present a kind of worldhood, but that unity is now no longer seen as deriving from or applying to the specific world for which it is produced.

As we've seen, the modernist artwork can only be the world--in the sense of providing an idea of meaningful totality--to the extent that it resists all efforts to use it as way of finding actual meaning. And this increasing abstraction, this withdrawal of the artist's attention from anything beyond the formal coherence of the work, is precisely where Harries finds the narcissism of modern art. The term narcissism is carefully chosen here--referring not only to the subject-centeredness of such modernist art but also to its exclusion of everything except the subject. True Narcissus that he (she) is, the modernist artist is obsessed with his (her) own image to the exclusion of all else.

Clearly, as the descriptor "narcissistic" indicates, for Harries there is something deeply wrong with an art that ceases to relate the individual to his/her world seen as a totality. But what precisely is the problem? After all, by Harries's own account the experience of aestheticist art does provide a refuge of sorts from the pressures of the everyday modern world. This would doubtless be a lesser task than that associated with the epistemological function of art, but it is not in itself necessarily worthless. Such art might, indeed, be the most pleasant to experience. But precisely in its retreat from representational tasks, aestheticist art reinforces the problems of a world in which alienation tends to paralyze the individual, problematizing all efforts at meaningful action. In other words, if the deepest spiritual manifestation of modernity is that it is difficult for individuals to act meaningfully, then an art that seduces people away from perceiving this crisis must be at least unhelpful and probably harmful. At the very least, it indicates that the artist has given up on making a difference in the world and has him/herself chosen the pleasures of narcissistic retreat as alternative. At the worst, it suggests that he/she is offering such retreat as a seductive alternative to meaningful action.

You might think here of Gustav Klimt's withdrawal, upon the censorship of his murals for the University of Vienna, into the role of portrait painter for the haute bourgeoisie of his turn-of-the-century world. As a famous account by Carl Schorske informs us, the earlier Klimt, leader of the avant-garde Secession movement, was determined to explore precisely those elements of the human experience--above all, sexuality-- that fin de sie'cle Viennese culture was determined to repress. Klimt's paintings prior to 1904 range from playfulness to rage, but many of these works challenge conventional liberal understandings of the self, demanding that the viewer acknowledge irrational and unconscious forces at work in the human being, forces that ill suit the ideal of the autonomous individual. In the first of three murals he made for the University of Vienna, an allegorical work entitled Philosophy, this challenge to liberal individualism emerges in a figural world of dynamic merging shadows. In contrast, after the public censorship of this and his other murals for the university, Klimt's later paintings become largely static celebrations of aesthetic presence. Rediscovering his father's craft as a jeweler, he produces jewel-like compositions, paintings that almost seem to trap their subjects in a metallic cage. It is as though the static nature of these paintings exposes the price that the painter himself pays for forswearing his challenge to his world and electing instead to build an alternative, perfect aesthetic world--"a temple of art" into which he withdraws ("Gustav Klimt," p. 264). Schorske, indeed, suggests that the cage here is finally as much Klimt's as his subjects': it represents the paralysis that results from aestheticism.


Whatever potential he may see for an authentic art of modernity, Harries sees the actual course of modern art as following an unvarying course. Such art ever more perfectly retreats in order to compose its own world. Thus,

[t]he history of modern art can be told as a story of art's emancipation from all nonaesthetic concerns. The divorce of art from religion in the early modern period provides an obvious introduction; the progressive attack, first on allegory, then on representation, and finally on all meaning, might be chapters; the emergence of the artwork as an ideally self-sufficient beautiful presence that should no longer mean but simply be could provide an effective conclusion. (Broken, p. xi)

It is in the context of this teleological view of the history of modern art that Harries raises the question of the "broken frame"--a question which provides the title for a series of talks about aesthetic modernism and postmodernism that he presented in the late 1980s. The title itself refers to a late-eighteenth-century engraving by the south German artist Johann Esaias Nilson entitled Der liebe Morgen. The engraving depicts a cowherd and a woman surrounded (within the picture) by a broken octagonal frame, which is itself supported by a peculiar house/ornament. As Harries's discussion of the picture makes clear, this image has to be understood as part of a rococo tradition of playful framing/representation. But what concerns me here is less Harries's analysis of the Bavarian rococo, than his argument that this kind of playful framing exposes the teleology of modern art by discovering the essence of the "aesthetic attitude."


Excerpted from The Frame and the Mirror: on Collage and the Postmodern by Thomas P. Brockelman Copyright © 2001 by Thomas P. Brockelman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Collage and the Postmodern

Part 1. Frame: The Truth in Collage
1. Breaking the Frame of Truth: Karsten Harries and the Truth of Art
2. Everything Goes: Collage and Perspectivism in Vattimo and Schwitters
3. The Place of Truth: Theatricality and Modernity in Krauss and Greenaway

Part 2. Mirror: The Crisis of Modern "Self"-Experience
4. Kant and Collage: Judgments, Avant-Gardism, and the Sublime
5. Posthumanism and the Postmodern in Contemporary Psychoanalytic Theory

Part 3. The Agony of Utopia
6. Utopia, the City, and the Limits of Collage

Conclusion: Collage Hermeneutics

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