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  • Foucault’s Philosophy of Art: A Genealogy of Modernity
  • B. C. Hutchens
Foucault’s Philosophy of Art: A Genealogy of Modernity. By Joseph J. Tanke. London: Continuum, 2009. xvi + 222 pp., ill. Pb £24.99.

Aiming to show that Michel Foucault’s historical work provides a new point of departure for philosophical aesthetics, Joseph Tanke offers this excellent survey of Foucault’s use of his genealogical and archaeological methods to address the status of art in modernity. Ideal both for undergraduates seeking a reliable overview and for scholars interested in the positioning of artworks in modernity, this book’s strengths are its clarity of composition, its author’s critical detachment, and the fascinating use to which he puts Foucault’s quite recently published lectures about artworks and artists. Tanke engages closely with Foucault’s work on Velázquez, Manet, Magritte, Kandinsky, Klee, Fromanger, Warhol, and Michals. In so doing, he runs the gamut of problems associated with representation, resemblance, similitude, creative production as destructuring, the disruptive status of the artwork, the liberation of the image from convention, and ‘life’ itself as ‘art’ in ancient Greek ethics. The first chapter explores Foucault’s work on Velázquez’s Las Meninas in conjunction with the rise of modernity, especially in respect of problems of finitude, invisibility, and materiality. Chapter 2 examines the struggle by which painting sought to liberate itself from the order of representation, as typified by the work of Manet. Chapter 3 focuses on Foucault’s engagement with Magritte, considering how painting affirms something by referring to something beyond itself. Chapter 4, which offers a superb commentary on Foucault’s conception of anti-Platonism, addresses the manner in which multiple events emerge from the image. The fifth (final) chapter defends Foucault’s thesis that modern art, by virtue of its provocation in matters of truth, ethos, and life, is a descendant of ancient Cynicism. While I recommend this book without reservation, there are two aspects of its structure that could be developed. First, in opposition to Gary Shapiro’s work, Tanke claims that Foucault never uncovered any evidence that the modern ‘discursive formation’ has slipped away or prepared for any succeeding epoch, whether ‘postmodern’ or otherwise (pp. 12–13). Although archaeology ‘tests, sorts, and attempts to map the field of the recently said by comparing it with what is definitively no longer our own’ (p. 59), modernity’s analytic of finitude is still very much contemporary (p. 40). Manet and Magritte’s canvases, for example, break with the past in shedding artistic commitments and ideals that are no longer our own (p. 71). This intriguing thesis could have been carried more explicitly into the later chapters on anti-Platonism and the ethico-aesthetics of Cynicism. Secondly, the book ends with provocative comments concerning Foucault’s use of Cynicism as a ‘transhistorical ethical category’ transmitted into modernity via modern art. The fact that [End Page 372] Tanke, like Foucault, is more repetitive than argumentative in making this point suggests that the thesis of transmission is not well supported. But these possible issues for discussion do not detract from the book’s valuable contribution to contemporary work on Foucault, modernity, and modern art.

B. C. Hutchens
James Madison University


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pp. 372-373
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