Two of Foucault's signature essays on painting are especially well known: the analysis of Velazquez's Las Meninas, and an essay on Rene Magritte that includes a striking account of how abstraction displaced representation in Western art. In addition, many of Foucault's texts are studded with acute descriptions of major painters from Breughel to Warhol; he gave lecture courses on quattrocento painting and Manet and published essays on several contemporary artists (Rebeyrolle, Fromanger, Michals). Since one of Foucault's major themes was the relation between visibility and discursivity, it is not surprising to find that painting is a favored site for exploring variations in this conjuncture. Throughout his work, painting and the visual arts serve as emblems of the epistemes that characterize distinct epochs of thought. At the same time, Foucault's engagement with contemporary art reveals his sense of its political significance and force. These themes coincide in Foucault's continuing interest in how art forms can break with acquired archives, apparatuses, and practices. In (mostly implicit) contrast with romantic concepts of genius (as in Kant, or more generally in the time of "man and his doubles"), Foucault attempted to analyze and articulate the processes of rupture and transformation that mark specific changes in what is called style. Dominant trends in art history either sought to trace relatively continuous developments (following a Hegelian lineage) or operated with sets of categories derived from Geistesgeschichte such as Heinrich Wollflin's linear and painterly modes. Philosophical aesthetics (as Derrida observes) has systematically (from Plato to Heidegger) given premier status to the linguistic arts of poetry and literature. Both of those ways of understanding visual art are put into question by Foucault's engagement with painting and photography.
Copyright © 2014 Cambridge. This chapter first appeared in The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon.
Please note that downloads of the book chapter are for private/personal use only.
Purchase online at Cambridge University Press.
Shapiro, Gary. "Painting (and Photography)." In The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, edited by Leonard Lawlor and John Nale, 327-33. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.