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  • Cathedra:A Modernist Reading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

When reaching for an image expressive of the complex challenges that Wittgenstein faces in Philosophical Investigations, Stephen Mulhall chooses as the cover illustration to his Inheritance and Originality Barnett Newman’s Canto II.1 When reaching for a painter emblematic of the condition of modernism in painting, Michael Fried also turns to Newman’s work.2 We might think of both choices as reflecting Stanley Cavell’s insistence that a work of human creativity, such as a painting or a philosophical discussion, has a scene and that the demarcating of such a scene, a process rendered highly self-aware in Newman’s paintings, is essential to understanding the particular kind of work that it is. Cavell urges us to think of philosophy as having not only a scene but also scenes of various types and to think of an accounting or demarcating of those scenes as essential to a full accounting of what philosophy is and of what the people who participate in those scenes aim to do and to become.3 Philosophy is also self-reflexive. As Mulhall writes in exploring these ideas, “For Cavell, what a distinctively philosophical problem might be is itself a philosophical problem, and one of its most fundamental ones.”4 These two questions—the question of how and when philosophy is staged and the question of how the scenes of philosophy acquire their distinctively philosophical character—are unavoidable, for both Mulhall and Cavell, in the condition of modernism. Similarly, what they call the “burden of modernism” refers to the challenge that artists and philosophers in the condition of modernism shoulder as they [End Page 177] investigate the mechanisms through which art and philosophy are able to establish their distinctive identities.

Mulhall’s interpretations of Wittgenstein and Cavell in Inheritance and Originality foreground this challenge: “The work of the writing of [Wittgenstein’s] Investigations and [Cavell’s] The Claim of Reason,” he claims, “appears as essentially modernist” (12). For many other theorists of modernism, such challenges primarily afflict the arts. Michael Fried, for example, describes the ways in which modernism presents problems for painting and sculpture. Fried highlights the means by which modernist painters and sculptors strive to protect their works from pressures external to them, pressures such as the blurring of boundaries between art forms or the leveling and commodifying effects of the entertainment industry. In exploring those challenges, he emphasizes the dialectic between the interior and the exterior of a work of art. In his essay “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” Fried characterizes Barnett Newman’s Cathedra, for instance, as a staged interaction between the inner content of the painting—the space on the canvas on which the paint is applied—and the outer framing, which serves to demarcate the painting from the surrounding environment. Fried builds on Clement Greenberg’s sense of modernism as the distillation of properties definitive of the various arts—the properties capable of demarcating one field of art from another. In his essay “The New Sculpture,” Greenberg argues that “a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium. This means, among other things, renouncing illusion and explicitness. The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity,’ by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves.”5 Following Greenberg and Fried, we see that Cathedra asks in its composition the very question of what a painting is, both by reflecting on the properties of its own medium and by challenging conventions for determining where the content of a painting begins and ends.6

Cavell himself claims to feel the burden of modernism most acutely in musical composition. The burden is expressed in two ways, first, as a threatened loss of established conventions for composing and for listening (“serious composers have, and feel they have, all but lost their audience”), and, second, as a set of anxieties about the properties and processes that are definitive of musical composition (“crises in the internal, and apparently irreversible, developments within their own artistic procedures”).7 Strangely, in...


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pp. 177-191
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