Issue 123, August 2014

Art, Aesthetics and the City


t11 123August 2014; 123


Bernard Smith’s Formalesque and the end of the history of art

Jim Berryman

Abstract: The concept of the Formalesque preoccupied Bernard Smith during the last decades of his life. First propounded in Modernism’s History (1998), the Formalesque is a proposed period style describing the art of the 20th century. Yet, despite his ambitions for the Formalesque as a new classification for modern art, the idea failed to appeal to academic art history. This paper does not attempt to salvage the Formalesque from art-historical obscurity. But it does argue Smith’s work on this topic is relevant by virtue of the contribution it makes to debates about modernism and art history. Although Smith’s thesis emphasizes the necessity of period styles and the perennial development of art history, paradoxically, the Formalesque also highlights the limitations of art history. If the Formalesque has a place in art historiography, it belongs to a speculative discourse describing the end of the history of art.


Towards a new romanticism: Derrida and Vico on metaphorical thinking

April Elisabeth Pierce

Abstract: This essay addresses Jacques Derrida’s theory of metaphor, as it has been handed to literary theory and continental philosophy. Our aim is to reassess the relationship between metaphor and metaphysics, using two distinct critical lenses. We will contrast Derrida’s influential position to an anachronistic author – Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Vico initiated what is now (retrospectively) called the romantic theory of metaphor, but the details of his theory are missing from current discussions. For this reason, Vico’s view is given closer attention. Two new concepts are introduced: mute metaphor and heroic metaphor. These terms help specify precisely how metaphor can be conceived as a process of consciousness rather than a grammatical rule or grammatical exception. Finally, it is suggested that Vico’s theory is preferable to Derrida’s. Vico’s vision of metaphorical language is more fruitful and less problematic than Derrida’s, both methodologically and terminologically. The romanticism espoused by Vico also suggests itself to new modes of contemporary research concerning the purpose and function of metaphor within language.

The aesthetics of Utopia: Creation, creativity and a critical theory of design

Richard Howells

Abstract: This article combines critical, visual and aesthetic theory to argue that the very act of design is a Utopian process. Crucially, the Utopian dimension is not simply a matter of subject matter or utility. Rather, it lies in the act of formal arrangement and composition, and therefore can apply to visual texts with no apparent subject matter at all. The argument is grounded in Ernst Bloch’s critical theory of Utopia, which sees Utopia as a process rather than a destination. It is illustrated with a case study of Navajo weaving, in tandem with an analysis of Navajo creation mythology. It concludes by arguing that we need to go beyond creation theory to a critical theory of creativity. Utopia is not something that we can delegate either to nature or to the supernatural because, as Bloch declares in The Spirit of Utopia, ‘Life has been put into our hands’.


Unspeakable resistance: Walter Benjamin on Attic tragedy

Robin Vandevoordt

Abstract: ‘Tragedy’ is one of those curiously elastic words reserved for life’s saddest spheres and events, irrespective of the forms in which they appear. Even though a vast body of genre studies has emerged, however, only a handful of studies have drawn cross-historical comparisons between tragic forms. This essay demonstrates how Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Attic tragedy may contribute to such a line of thought, focusing both on tragedies’ subversive potential and on the social-historical constellations in which they first emerged. In the first part, Benjamin’s conception of the Attic tragedies is explored by focusing on his The Origin of German Tragic Drama and the theoretical roots of his earlier work. According to Benjamin, Attic tragedies offered a messianic, dialectical critique on the social-historical constellation in which they appeared. The second part of the article discusses the relevance of these reflections for the analysis of contemporary tragic forms, thereby identifying the heirs of Attic tragedy outside the strict boundaries of ‘drama’.

Daniel Hudson Burnham and the American city imperial

Christopher Vernon

Abstract: Architecture, landscape architecture and urban design are seldom merely benign aesthetic propositions. With its victory in the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States unexpectedly found itself in possession of an empire. Within a volcanic climate of patriotic fervour, Washington’s new imperial status galvanized interest in improving the city in a manner commensurate with its enlarged role. On the strength of his work at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), celebrated architect Daniel Hudson Burnham took the lead in Washington’s transformation (1901–2) and urban design became his medium for imperialist expression. This potent mechanism’s deployment would not be confined to the imperial hearth. The United States soon set its sights on modernizing, that is ‘Americanizing’, Manila, the antique capital of its newly-acquired Philippine colony, and similarly charged Burnham with the task (1904). Overtly emulating the British Raj in India, he was also to design a wholly new summer capital there. This essay canvasses Burnham’s work at the American and Philippine capitals, along with his vicarious hand in the design of a new model American town in the Panama Canal Zone, considering it through the lens of imperialism. The location and imperial purpose of these projects also reminds us that – at least from an antipodean perspective – in the early 20th century, Great Britain held no monopoly on empire.


No little plans: Canberra, Via Chicago, Washington DC, The Philippines, and onwards

Christine Ellem

Abstract: A number of important city-building projects across the early 20th century drew on the utopian ideas of the City Beautiful movement, an architectural response to the poverty and social dysfunctions generated by urban industrialism. This was also a moment in which the imperial connections and imperial ambitions of settler capitalist societies coincided with national projects. The curious co-existence of these ambitions was embodied in the capital city projects of the time – simultaneously imperial and national, and developed through an exchange of utopian ideas about architecture, planning, nature and modernity. Of these, Canberra is exemplary; the most fully realized. A hundred years later, its story is still largely told in narrow terms, as a parochial tale of incomplete nationalism. Shifting focus to explore Canberra in relation to other capital city building projects during the period offers a better understanding of the complex overlays of imperialism, nationalism and regionalism at play in new world settler societies, and the cultural traffic across the Anglophone world.

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