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We are looking at a close-up drawing of trees. One is cut down, with an axe marked with Kant’s name lying on the ground near its stump. Another has the name Fichte written on the bark.
And yet a third, the large tree closest to us, has the name and dates, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) carved on it. A little higher up, the initials, H, H and S, are visible inside a heart-like romantic triangle. A human face and dog’s head appear within its roots.
The artist Maria Bussmann, writing in an email from her home in Vienna, told me that she got the idea for this image while walking in the woods kept noticing “so many cuts in the trees along the trail.”
It is highly unlikely for an artist to be also a professional philosopher. Arthur Danto successfully made woodcuts before he became a famous academic. Adrian Piper, whose retrospective in 2018 remains the largest exhibition ever awarded to a living artist by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is a distinguished Kant scholar. And for more than 20 years, Bussmann, who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna on Kazimir Malevich, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, has made drawings inspired by Hannah Arendt, Baruch de Spinoza, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among other thinkers.
What can we learn from these three artists about the often-contentious relationship between philosophy and art? Danto and Piper say that there is no relationship between their philosophies and their own artworks. Bussmann’s situation is surely different, for her drawings are imaginative, often elliptical responses to philosophical writings.
Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Aesthetic Judgment cites few artworks (in fact, the house he where lived possessed but a single, solitary image: a portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he greatly admired). And the writings of Arendt, Spinoza and Wittgenstein offer no examples of visual art, though Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s does, in a three-page account of Dutch art in his landmark Aesthetics.
How does Bussmann approach such writers visually? Illustrational images would surely fall short of the thinking laid out in their texts. Her drawings, instead, acknowledge the elusiveness of fixing philosophical terms in imagery, like bugs in amber. Her art is not a depiction of the ideas of these philosophers, but rather a commentary, or as she puts it, an “addendum” to their work.
How does her drawing of the forest (“Untitled,” 2020) present the writings of the five philosophers it names? “Kant(e)” is German for “edge,” and Fichte means “spruce.” Bussmann is thus referring to the school of thought known as German Idealism: Kant is considered its founder, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte was his wayward disciple.
Hegel, one of the most important German philosophers, brought Kant’s thinking into the realm of aesthetics. (It’s appropriate that Bussmann puts the tree with Hegel’s name on it in the foreground, given that he is the sole German Idealist who developed a detailed account of the visual arts.)
And the initials above his name — H,H, and S — stand for Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, two philosophers and a poet, who were classmates at the Tübinger Stift, a Lutheran seminary in Tübingen, Germany. They are assumed by historians to have collaborated on an important anonymous essay “The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism,” (1796/97), an early response to Kant’s philosophy.
This esoteric philosophical tradition, however, acquired enormous political significance when Karl Marx, “the greatest pupil Hegel ever had” (Arendt), was inspired, so he said, to stand Hegel on his head. Marx turned German Idealism into a materialistic theory of revolution.
But other readers gave Hegel a radically conservative reading. And so one 20th-century Hegelian described World War II, not implausibly, as a battle between left-wing (i.e. Soviet Marxist) Hegelians and t right-wing (German Fascist) Hegelians.
Hegel’s Aesthetics — a collection of university lectures given in Heidelberg and Berlin between 1818 and 1829 — offers some tantalizing hints about how to understand Bussmann’s untitled drawing. “Landscapes and situations drawn from daily human life,” he says, “afford an extremely favorable scope for invention and execution.” What’s at stake, he adds, is “how far the symbolical itself is to be reckoned an art-form.”
Bussmann’s Waldrolle (Wood-Roll, 2012), a series of drawings on a very long fax paper roll, anticipates the imagery of “Untitled.” Bussmann depicts forests first from a distance very high up, and then close up, zeroing in on trunks whose gnarls and burls can be taken for wide-open eyes. “When we look at the world rationally,” Hegel wrote, “the world looks rationally back.”
He believed that world history had an order. So too did Marx, though he understood that order very differently. But can this belief survive scrutiny of 20th-century German history? That’s the philosophical problem that “Untitled,” in its elusive way, interrogates. German Idealism remains a grand philosophical tradition, but the intellectual world in which it was created has been ruined. As has Königsberg in East Prussia, where Kant lived and worked, which also was the place where Arendt grew up. Now it’s called Kaliningrad; after the war that bombed-out city became part of Russia.
Great philosophers like the German Idealists provide an overview of a given situation, uncovering its roots without offering many specifics; like a painting by Malevich, Newman, or Rothko, it is an abstraction in which the details are subsumed by the whole.
But representational art is virtually defined by specifics. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then Bussmann’s “Untitled” will probably puzzle you. It offers one unavoidably partial perspective on the achievement of these philosophers — a frontispiece, as it were, to a wide-ranging interpretation of their work.
If you want to understand German Idealism, you certainly will need to do a great deal of reading. The strength of Bussmann’s drawing lies in its marvelously indirect use of this tradition. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Kant’s much quoted statement might serve as an elliptical subtitle for “Untitled.”
The more you know about philosophy, the more you will see in this small drawing. The danger then, comes in seeing too much, more than is there. You need to know how to look, and also when to stop. I still don’t know how to interpret the face and dog. What am I missing?
Hegel himself, to quote him one last time, said that the function of art is “to set forth in an adequate sensuous present what is itself inherently rich in content,” while the philosopher’s chief task is “to comprehend in thought what this fullness of content and its beautiful mode of appearance are.” This very demanding characterization of art and its interpretation is a good preliminary description of Bussmann’s richly sensuous philosopher’s woods.