Individualism and Inter-Subjectivity in Modernism: Two Case Studies of Artistic Interchanges

University of Austin
Austin, TX

Individualism and Inter-Subjectivity in Modernism: Two Case Studies of Artistic Interchanges – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906); Robert Rauschenberg (1925- )and Jasper Johns (1930- is a book derived from Joachim’s PhD defended at the University of Austin, Texas. This article only contains the forward to the full the full text. Please select the PDF to download the full manuscript:


My aim in this essay is to contribute to shift the main axis of reflection on modern art from an individual-oriented perspective to an inter-subjective (or dialogical) perspective. The latter is closer to a day-to-day account of what happens in ordinary encounters or in everyday conversations. [See Frontispiece illustration] The former approach corresponds to a proper historicization of the process of formation of art. This process largely consists in emphasizing the high moments and the key individuals that contributed to the modernist enterprise.

While reflecting on this shift, I observed that the individual-oriented direction at work in modernism is locked within a more complex logic that I tried to explore and expose piece by piece. In brief, in the history of modernism, individual artists, one-by-one, appear to be the carriers (or the instruments) of a logic upon which they have no control. This logic is essentially the logic at work in historicism—or in what Hegel would have called the ruse of reason. The movement of history unfolds itself behind the backs of the artists who thus appear as the unconscious medium that carries through the development of modern art.

It is there, of course, that the presence of Clement Greenberg is central. His position in this essay (in Section II) is symbolic of his position within modernism. Given his status as a key exponent of modernism, I decided to examine Greenberg’s sources in order to reach out the main ideological components in the modernist logic. These sources derive from philosophical texts, hence the abundance of philosophical material exposed in the present work. I questioned especially Greenberg’s claim to present his work under the aegis of Immanuel Kant whom he referred to as the “first real modernist.” Yet, I found out something like a cheat at the core of Greenberg’s ideology: while pledging allegiance to Kant, Greenberg was carrying an intellectual affair with Hegel, as far as his conception of the development of the history of art was concerned, and with Nietzsche, as far as his conception of the roles of individuals in history was concerned.

By contributing further to unlock the grip of this historicist/modernist logic, I hope to have begun to show that it is possible to look at works by modern and post-modern artists in different ways. Works of art that resulted from the two artistic interchanges studied in this essay appear both to stem from and to produce a multiplicity of dialogues (about which modernist history, on the whole, remained silent.) These dialogues were of special interest in that the roles of producer and viewer within each pair of artists were consistently exchangeable: each artist was thus, not just thinking-of-the-other (as Levinas would put it), but also making and viewing art with the other in mind. The works of art in question could thus be defined more as relationships than as end products—or icons.

At the end of this shift of perspectives, one could count both a theoretical loss and a theoretical gain. The loss had to do with the fact that works of art no longer obtained their meanings from the powerful explicatory engine that the logic of modernism used to provide. The gains, however, in my opinion, are worth taking this loss: works of art are then the embodiment of the artists’ freedom of action, and freedom of co-action. Instead of being the mark of a logic that transcends the art and the artist, the work of art through these dialogues appears to regain a certain autonomy. I define this autonomy as the capacity to function according to its own rules, and as the capacity and the need to open itself to others. Hence, the importance in this essay of texts by Kant, Fichte, and Levinas. It is at this point that Greenberg’s reading of Kant appears partial: it only dealt with a fragment of his corpus. It seems difficult to me to read Kant without coming across the notion of “thinking in community with others”—a notion that remains conspicuously absent from Greenberg’s texts.

We thus return to the notion of dialogue that constitutes the keystone of this essay. The works of art that I selected in the various illustration dossiers incarnate two dialogues between four artists. They offer remarkable case studies on the nature of communication in our modern and post-modern eras. Even though they are frequently referred to in the course of this text, these illustrations can be looked at independently from the text of this work and provide the structure for several ‘dialogues’ around particular themes. They have been organized by dossiers around these themes. In the end, within the landscape of contemporary theory, this work claims to offer an alternative to the aporias of modernism (together with its all-encompassing logic) and to the post-modern/deconstructive nihilistic shibboleth according to which nothing in communication may be taken for granted, given that any attempt to communicate stands to violate “the heterogeneity of language games,” as Lyotard would have it. Paradoxically, the two artistic interchanges in this essay point to one thing: communication may take place while preserving a certain “heterogeneity of language games.” They prove in the end that communication and freedom, inter-subjectivity and individualism, humanism and (post-)modernity are not (necessarily) incompatible. These two examples of two very strong artistic interchanges point to the fact that, ultimately, beyond the aporias of modernism and post-modernism, all is not lost among the promises of modernity.

  • Cézanne and Pissarro, right
  • Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg
  • Individualism and Inter-Subjectivity in Modernism: Two Case Studies of Artistic Interchanges