Criticism Against Itself: Reynolds' Discourses and Subjectivity
In the theory of criticism more and more attention is being paid to the impact of material and economic practices on the definition of the artwork and aesthetic experience. At such a juncture (between theory and practice) artists who have made historically significant contributions to the theory of criticism deserve special attention. This essay focuses on the rhetorical connection between idealist conceptions of beauty (derived from the eighteenth century philosophic literature) and the practice of creating and viewing the visual arts in Joshua Reynolds Discourses on Art. Unlike the philosophers who influence his work, Reynolds' primary concern is not a theory of understanding, aesthetic experience, or a general philosophy of beauty or taste. However, as he seeks to generate a critical theory that produces an intellectually (and financially) productive relationship between the artist, his artwork, the viewer, and the academic institution Reynolds helps to carve out a significant intellectual role for the artist in the theory of criticism and history of aesthetics. The significance of Reynolds' contribution to our modern critical projects (and his impact on subsequent philosophies of art and aesthetics) is worth revisiting in light of the late twentieth century's concern with art's relationship to intellectual and material history. By basing his approach to the aesthetic experience of the art-object on his own approach to portraiture and art history Reynolds is able to contribute significantly to the tradition of public artist-intellectuals who bypass the philosophic problems of subjectivity in the aesthetic experience by emphasizing the rhetoric of technique which originates with the artist's practice.
Keywords: Aesthetics, Subjectivity, Art, Criticism, Theory of criticism, Philosophy of art
Doctoral student (ABD), Program in Literary and Cultural Theory Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University