- Der Platz des Publikums: Modelle für Kunstöffentlichkeit im 18. Jahrhundert
"In Berlin the thing is now called Publicum," wrote Gottsched in 1760, suggesting the novelty of the word, which Kleist fifty years later still rendered as the Italianate "Publico." There had been from the beginning a welter of theories of what the "public" is, and of the human groups picked out by these definitions. For the public was no idle matter; it was held to be judge and consumer, seat of aesthetic and of political validation. This ideal, which mirrors the rise and fall of the Enlightenment, has come to define the art history of the eighteenth century, from Thomas Crow to Krzysztof Pommian, sealing the neglect of eighteenth-century art in Italy, Iberia, and Eastern Europe, regions not yet equipped with an all-authoritative Public distinct from courtly and church patronage.
Eva Kernbauer's Platz des Publikums [The Place of the Public] sums up this work from a feminist perspective that subtly changes the subject. Despite fine feminist studies of the period and of individual figures, the mid-level topic of the art public remains largely the province of men. This has had typical results: the lionization of one theory, artist, or public, pushed to extremes of idiosyncrasy (e.g., Michael Fried's Diderot); and an anxious search for the "right" public, one that a Jacques-Louis David might grasp by the shoulder and say, "come, we have work to do." Instead, Kernbauer coolly charts models of the public advanced in Paris, London, and Scotland. The public as a soothing abstraction akin to the "rising standard of living" is not tolerated: "Whenever there is talk in the eighteenth century of the 'enlightened public' or 'publique éclairé,' it is hard to draw the boundaries between polite evasion, euphemism, irony, and oratio pro domo [self-defense]" (24). Kernbauer's prose is spiky and learned. Her main insight— that "the public" is not a goal synonymous with modern art, but a means on a par with the best propaganda painting, aiming to form political allegiances—is of broad value. That said, however, it is odd that her penultimate chapter on the staging of publicity turns into a monograph on Jacques-Louis David's unfinished but wildly ambitious Tennis Court Oath (1791- ). Given Kernbauer's citation of [End Page 157] the claim that Thomas Crow's book on the French public is really a preamble to the 1784 Oath of the Horatii (12), one supposes she is comfortable with having her book read as a preamble to David's second oath. The interpretation, in any case, is plausible and elegant, and shows that Kernbauer can write as well about pictures as she does about the art public. The book ends with a brief chapter on the birth of the museum, ironically exposing the respectful silence that artworks are granted there, which is an enemy to thought.
At the book's center is a fascinating discussion of "multitudes"—a term some think invented by Antonio Negri. Kernbauer's research is impressive, touching on prominent critics but also on the London daily press and academic proces verbaux. Despite this erudition, Rousseau goes unmentioned; what we get instead are up-to-date insights from Claude Lefort and Jacques Rancière, meant to make us attentive to the fact that eighteenth-century art was contemporary art. (The cover image by Raymond Pettibon, who astonishingly cites an eighteenth-century critic, makes the same point.) Kernbauer is right to emphasize the actuality of her history, but she is also right to complain about art-historical use of Habermas's Öffentlichkeit [public sphere] as a "black-box" into which paintings are thrown to get a reassuring result (20). The solution is not to abandon recent theory, but to think through how it relates to what historical actors actually thought. For instance, Turgot's notion of la masse totale, and Rousseau's distinction between a legitimate volonté générale and a brute volonté de tous, might illuminate the contrast between ideal and...