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The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy

After the Beautiful: Politics and Modernism

May 14-16, 1999



The theme of this conference is the relation between the distinct aesthetic qualities of modern art, literature, music and architecture on the one hand, and the distinct social organization and political structures of nineteenth and twentieth century Western societies on the other. The basic question at issue: what is the best way to think about the connection between modernist, revolutionary, avant-garde and esoteric aesthetic phenomena in Western societies over the last hundred years or so and the liberal-democratic, technically advanced, ostensibly prudent, ever more middle-class, market-oriented polity and society within which such art works are produced, consumed and appreciated? Why is so much modern art and literature in these societies oppositional and negative, and what might be the political meaning of such a fact? More particularly: why is the modern art produced in just such societies characterized by representations not primarily of the beautiful but of the dissonant, the unrepresentable or of the failure of representation and communication, of the sublime, the ugly, the absent, the shocking, the painful; of what political significance is the self-referential, formally experimental or simply difficult character of modernist art and and postmodernist art and literature? Especially important: of what significance is it that so much art and literature is now culturally marginal, confined often to the academy on the one hand, or the art market on the other? Of what significance would it be if the right answer to these sorts of questions is: aesthetic phenomena now simply play no important social, political or historical role at all?

Conference Schedule

Friday, May 14


Chair: Arnold Davidson, University of Chicago

Before the Beautiful? Art and Edification in Ancient Greece
G. R. F. Ferrari, University of California, Berkeley

After the Sublime: Stations in the Career of an Emotion
Glenn Most, University of Chicago

Saturday, May 15


Chair: Whitney Davis, Northwestern University

Modernism and Dialectics
T. J. Clark, University of California, Berkeley

Destruction and Beauty from Jackson Pollock to Gerhard Richter
Thomas Crow, Yale University


Chair: David Kolb, Bates College

Radical Modernism and the Failure of Style
Lydia Goehr, Columbia University

"For the sake of the beautiful, there is no longer beauty": Art and Anti-Art in Critical Theory
Jay Bernstein, Vanderbilt University

Diving into the Wreck: Aesthetic Spectatorship at the Fin-de-siècle
Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

Sunday, May 16

10:00 a.m.

Chair: Richard Velkley, The Catholic University of America

Beauty and the Intransigent Avant-Garde
Arthur Danto, Columbia University

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©1999, 2000 The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, University of Chicago
Revised: January 2nd, 2000