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The Death of Painting (After Plato)

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Whereas the entrance of the monochrome into modern art has typically been understood in light of movements in contemporary art and aesthetic theory following in its wake, this essay seeks to understand the motivations for, and the effect of, the monochrome in the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko in 1921 in reference to Plato’s analysis of pure pleasure and absolute beauty in the Philebus. I argue that Rodchenko and Plato were motivated by a shared project to contend with the aesthetic and psychological effects of figurative semblance, or what Socrates calls the phantasm, in order to harmonize human perception with the world of sensuous material objects. It is in this shared project, I contend, that Rodchenko’s strategy is to be understood as a kind of materialist Platonism that, when viewed phenomenologically, reveals Plato’s objects of absolute beauty to be, in the context of industrial capitalism and the crisis of perception that Benjamin, among others, saw as its consequence, sites of loss and meaninglessness for modern consciousness, yet sites which nonetheless contain emancipatory potential for a social order that has been systematically alienated from itself and its environment.


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Affiliations: 1: Fairfield University


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