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George J. Leonard EMERSON, WHITMAN, AND CONCEPTUAL ART The widespread abandoning of the art object at the end of the 1960s was taken as something radically, even frighteningly, new, by critics and artists alike. Objects, concept artist Joseph Kosuth was asserting by 1969, are "irrelevant" to art. Though an artist might choose, as in the past, to "employ" objects, "all art is finally conceptual." In fact it was now time that the object, nothing more than the "physical residue" of the artist's mental activity, was dispensed with.1 "We / open our eyes and ears seeing life / each day excellent as it is," John Cage chanted: "This / realization no longer needs art. . . ."2 Aestheticians as disparate as Murray Krieger and Harold Rosenberg reacted to this "transfiguration of the commonplace," as Arthur Danto has called it. Danto has gained a wide scholarly audience for his ideas about the 1960s as "the end of art," or at least as the beginning of "post-historical art."3 We know from such works as Renato Poggioli's TL· T^ry oftL· Avant-Garde that, in this century, particular movements have routinely declared themselves to be art's climax.4 Critics like Jacques Barzun and artists like Amedee Ozenfant had been saying for years that art was exhausted. Yet conceptualism's attack on the object struck most critics as something both alarming and new: Irving Sandler wrote in a special edition of the College Art Association's Art Journal devoted to the problem that it demolished "every notion of what art should be,"5 and Murray Krieger feared that this "leap beyond Pop Art" would "complete the obliteration of the realm of art, its objects, its museums. . . ."6 But the conceptualist attacks on the art object were, in fact, not new. One can find attacks as scathing in Emerson and Whitman; so scathing, that criticism has rarely taken them seriously. The attacks the concep297 298Philosophy and Literature tualists mounted in the 1960s were only the culmination ofan intellectual tendency which appeared throughout the West one hundred and sixty years before. It has long been a scholarly commonplace that after 1800 an "intellectual tendency"—as M. H. Abrams finallytermed it—extolling the possibilities of this world emerged in all parts of Western culture. When itappears in literature we nowusually call it, withAbrams, Natural Supernaturalism; or, with Harold Bloom, the "visionary company." Man, Wordsworth decreed, can and must learn to find "Paradise" in "the common day."7 Surprisingly litde work has been done on what happened when this intellectual tendency, Natural Supernaturalism, confronted the art object . Emerson and Whitman can stand for many who were necessarily ill at ease with the idea of art objects as elite objects superior to the common things it was their mission to extol. Wordsworth works before these two; Ruskin develops similar ideas into greater complexity; but since Emerson writes clear expository prose and avoids fanciful terminology , he makes a good place to enter this dark wood. Let us begin with some straightfor-ward, overdue interdisciplinary history, reading Emerson on the art object, noticing similar passages in Whitman, and noting where Emerson has reworked Hegel for his own ends. For Emerson objects are but thought's "inert effect," as for the concept artist Kosuth they would be but the "physical residue" of the artist's activity. Emerson and Kosuth, opposite Shakespeare, do not applaud the art process as the giving to an airy nothing a local habitation and a name; rather they disdain the stuff as petrifactions, as dead mud footprints left by living thoughts diat have raced away.8 In his essay "Circles," Emerson derides our admiration for a work of architecture, directing us to the "litde waving hand" that built it, for "that which builds is better than that which is built." By the same logic, the invisible thoughts which truly wrought the object were even better than the hand and "nimbler."9 When such passages are discussed at all, they are usually considered Platonic,10 but, in his essay "Art," Emerson envisions a use for art objects Plato would have blinked at. For the time being, art objects have a particular "office" to fill. That office, Emerson wrote in...


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