Some Neglected Aspects of the Rococo: Berkeley, Vico, and Rococo Style.

Dissertation, Portland State University (2012)
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The Rococo period in the arts, flourishing mainly from about 1710 to about 1750, was stylistically unified, but nevertheless its tremendous productivity and appeal throughout Occidental culture has proven difficult to explain. Having no contemporary theoretical literature, the Rococo is commonly taken to have been a final and degenerate form of the Baroque era or an extravagance arising from the supposed careless frivolity of the elites, including the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Neither approach adequately accounts for Rococo style. Naming the Rococo raises profound issues for understanding the relations between conception and production in historical terms. Against the many difficulties that the term has involved in accounting for an immense but elusive cultural movement, this thesis argues that some of the chief philosophical conceptions of the period clarify the particular character and significance of Rococo production. Rococo production is here studied chiefly in decor, architecture, and the plastic arts. This thesis also makes an extended general argument for the value of intellectual history. Rococo style is a group of visual effects of which the central character is atectonicity. This is established by a synthesizing overview of Rococo ornamental motifs. Principal theorists of post-Cartesian thought have failed to see how these distinguish Rococo style from both Baroque and Enlightenment culture. The analysis addresses the historical narratives of Benjamin, Adorno, Foucault, Deleuze, and others about Baroque and Enlightenment culture. The core historical claim of this thesis is that Rococo atectonic effects are visual forms of the anti-materialist, idealist ontology of George Berkeley and of the metaphysics and ontology in the early work of Giambattista Vico. Close readings of important passages from works of both philosophers published in 1710 develop the relationship between atectonics and idealist ontology. Both men rejected the Baroque hierarchical cosmology in favor of finitude as the key to human understanding. The readings center on the issue of causality, including Berkeley’s views of the perfect contingency of the world and on Vico’s theories of truth and ingenium. A reading of Diderot’s critique of the Rococo, which led the reaction to it, shows that he recognized the power of idealist ontology in the Rococo cultural production. The larger force in the rejection of Rococo is the emergence of the sublime as a morally fearful feature of physical nature. Montesquieu’s aesthetic work also shows the transition to a more rigidly determined view of existence, which was expressed but constrained in the little-recognized lattice motif in Rococo arts. The result of these readings is the influence during and after the Rococo period of the concept of continuous creation, in which the memory and imagination of the human subject relays God-given powers of creation into the production of culture. Continuous creation also suggested a human capability to animate material nature. Rococo style displays this as pre-cinematic effects that represent the non-material, non-causal deep structure of reality.

Author's Profile

Bennett Gilbert
Portland State University


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