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Why Abstract Art?
Reflections on Alain Besançon’s The Forbidden Image, University of Chicago Press

October 12-13, 2001

Friday, October 12  

9:45 – 12:00 

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago)

 2 :00 – 4 :00

Joel Snyder (University of Chicago)
Alain Besançon (Institut de France, Paris)


Saturday, October 13

10 :00 – 12 :00

W.J.T. Mitchell (University of Chicago)
Marc Fumaroli (Académie Française, Paris)

1 :30 – 3 :30 

James Welling (Los Angeles)
Michael Fried (Johns Hopkins University)

All sessions will be Classics 10.

For Further information, please contact Thomas Bartscherer (tlbartsc@uchicago.edu)


Sponsors: The Committee on Social Thought, The Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, The France-Chicago Center, the John M. Olin Center 

Organizing Committee:
Eva Atanassowa
Thomas Bartscherer

Thomas Pavel

Statement of purpose: 

The conference will discuss the reasons for the emergence of 20th century abstract art.  In his recent book, the renowned French historian and cultural critic Alain Besançon links 20th-century abstract painting to the history of religious disputes about idolatry.   According to Besançon, there is a fundamentally religious motivation behind the quest for purity, the ascetism, the dissatisfaction with the representation of the existing world that are both present in the iconoclastic tradition and in 20th century art.   For him, 20th-century abstractionist aesthetics contains a mystical religiosity deeply informed by fin de siècle esotericism. 

Besançon’s is a powerful thesis on the meaning of recent art.  By linking the iconoclastic tradition to abstract art, Besançon highlights the latter’s aversion for the visible world and its confidence in the mystical intuition alleged to provide a deeper knowledge than reason and the senses. 

A group of first-rate French and American philosophers, aestheticians and art historians will gather at the University of Chicago to discuss this thesis, as well as reflect on the future of abstract art.  James Welling, a major contemporary photographer, will join the conference to present the point of view of an artist.

The participants:

 Robert Pippin, Raymond and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, is the foremost American specialist in Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy.   He has published several books, including Idealism as Modernism, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture, and Henry James and Modern Moral Life.

Joel Snyder is Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.

Alain Besançon had taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, France.  He is a member of the Institut de France and published numerous books on Russian and Soviet history, cultural criticism, and art history. 

W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English and Art History at the University of Chicago.

Marc Fumaroli, a member of the French Academy, is Visiting Professor in the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago.  He is one the of the most prolific and influential authors on early modern European literature and art. 

Michael Fried is Professor of Comparative Literature and Art History and Johns Hopkins University.  He is one of the most important art historians in America today, author of numerous books on 19th-century French and German art.

James Welling, outstanding contemporary photographer.


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