115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Song of Sterility

Didier Maleuvre, "University of California, Santa Barbara"

This paper studies the influence of romanticism, especially German romanticism, on our modern understanding of art.  In particular, it shows how the philosophy of artistic autonomy led to a new form of expression dedicated to the waning, or sterility, of aesthetic power. This sterility, romanticism touted as a greater form of expression than naively bountiful art.  It paves the way for the postmodernist dispensation that finds aesthetic triumph in overcoming the distinction between artistic success and failure.

Proposal: 

The Song of Sterility

This paper studies the influence of romanticism, especially German romanticism, on our modern understanding of art.  Free individuality, according to romanticism, was the fulcrum of the life well lived.  The self ought to be a universe onto itself: however far it wonders, the romantic self takes its apprehension with it, which is therefore ever-moving and boundless. This philosophy of subjectivity triumphant informed the idea of a work of art beholden to no authority greater than itself. This inward turn is the cause of a newly intellectualized aesthetic product: autonomous art is drawn to gaze inward and to scrutinize the means of expression. This is how romantic lyricism is the progenitor of the artist-cum-theorist of modern vintage.

Freedom, however, comes at a cost: in this instance, fragility and uncertainty. Freed from Gone the guiding hand of craft rules and techniques, the work of art is wholly dependent on what Schlegel called, the “wilfulness of the poet”—i.e., on the intermittencies of the heart. But the latter is a notoriously fickle source: sometimes inspiration comes, and sometimes it has nothing to give. And when it has nothing to give, the artist must reckon honestly with the ebb of his art. As it happens, this helplessness before the waning of expression is the subject of much romantic art.

A poet who is uninspired yet has one recourse left: to sing about his lack of inspiration. This is how the romantic inward turn led to the creation of an artistic leitmotiv—let’s call it the song of sterility. It is the poem that makes poetry out of being uninspired, and the painting that makes images of its inability to paint. The romantic song of sterility, however, was a fatal paradox unless the artist could justify his failure to make art as, somehow, a greater and purer form of artistic expression. And this, in fact, is what we see happening in German, French, and English romanticism: a flowering of artworks which set out to prove that an art of self-doubt and blockage could be great art, indeed greater than naively bountiful art. 

In this paper, I propose to follow one such example of vindicated sterility through Honoré de Balzac’s famous novella The Unknown Masterpiece. The tormented self-doubting genius, the unfinished interminable masterpiece, the disappointing failure, the bathetic result—these, Balzac invites us to consider, are the earmarks of true genius and the magnificent harvest of freedom. The less the artist can, the greater must his genius be. Here we can see how the romantic emancipation of art paves the way for the modernist and postmodernist dispensation that finds aesthetic triumph in overcoming the distinction between artistic success and failure.