In Need of Narrative

Art, style, and fashion are all part of a complex interplay of individual and social factors. According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, taste is a subjective faculty, which allows us to perceive beauty, although not to understand its nature. Beauty is somewhat fleeting and seems to escape our rational scrutiny (here some further notes about Kant’s aesthetic theory). Later in the nineteenth century, Hegel and his followers defined beauty as the revelation of a deeper meaning giving shape to history in its entirety, a narrative which unravels before our eyes through an inescapable process of progression. Communist critics such as Theodore Adorno and Peter Bürger maintained such notion of historical development but confined their reflections to the relation between art and society, superstructure and substructure. As Ernst Gombrich points out in “In Search of Cultural History”, Marxist art criticism adapted Hegel’s ideas to a materialistic reading. However, despite notable differences, all these systems propose a narrative trying to incorporate the human artistic efforts into a system to rationalise the various, discontinuous, seemingly aleatory events of human history.

Anthropometry – Yves Klein

In “Modernity and Self-Identity”, Anthony Giddens compares the construction of identity to “continuously revised biographical narratives”. History is indeed a narration of events as Leon Battista Alberti acknowledged in De Pictura through the term historia. Historia is indeed both the narrative and the content of the narration. Telling a story is never a neutral process. As Bürger points out in Theory of the Avant-Garde, any theory which strives toward meta-historical remarks is actually historical in itself and needs to deal with its contingent context. Our interpretation of facts and events necessarily contains some sort of bias and reflects our broader view of the world. As Baudelaire points out in “The Painter of Modern Life”, meaning is something that we need to define day by day, shaping reality through our own vision. Criticism and narration are indeed creative processes in the same way as art or writing.

Winged Victory – Yves Klein

Art has always been concerned with issues of identity. Through an art-historical analysis, it can be used to infer something about the patron, either an individual or a social group, or the artist. It can describe the values and ideas of a movement, a nation, an ethnicity. Art conveys content and therefore requires the viewer to interpret and evaluate it. In this regard, the necessity of finding meaning and expressing personal preferences stems from the implicit power of art and artefacts to convey a sense of identity, transmitting it to the viewer who can embrace or reject it. This is indeed the fundamental idea of the phenomenological school, that the interplay between viewer and artwork implies two active parts, rather than the action of an agent onto a passive object.

People Begin to Fly – Yves Klein

The need for narratives is inherent to art and answers a deeper human desire. Narration is not only the descriptive recollection of events. It is rather the crafting of an identity which passes through both the creation and the contemplation of art, which becomes the material expression of a concept, feeling, or action. Art is indeed an active process which gives substance to identity claims and allows these to spread and influence other people across time and space. Returning to Baudelaire, art offers a space for reality to be fashioned and shaped into new, beautiful forms. There is no identity without a narrative to seal it into the realm of human experience. 


International Klein Blue


Winged Victory

People Begin to Fly

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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