The First Transcultural World of Art: A Key Aspect of André Malraux’s Theory of Art
Derek Allen (Australian National University)
In his two major works on the theory of art, The Voices of Silence and The Metamorphosis of the Gods, André Malraux argues that we today live in a world of art without precedent – a world that encompasses the works of all cultures, past and present. Malraux argues that this transcultural, or (to use his term) ‘universal’, world of art is the result of two closely linked developments in the nineteenth century – the emergence in the West of an agnostic culture, and the birth of modern art. Prior to this, both in the West and elsewhere, the perception by a given culture of what we today call ‘works of art’ was always linked to that culture’s ‘absolute’ - usually religious - and works foreign to that absolute were regarded with at best indifference, at worst contempt. The notion of a universal world of art was then quite unknown and doubtless unthinkable.
This paper will examine the validity of Malraux’s claims and their implications for us today. It will argue, first, that his analysis fits the historical facts, and that while we today usually accept our ‘universal world of art’ as part of the natural order of things, it is in fact a quite recent historical development and one that is, as Malraux says, without precedent. Second, the paper will examine the theoretical underpinnings of Malraux’s propositions, showing that he provides us with the conceptual tools through which this major development can be understood. And third, there will be a discussion of Malraux’s claim that, in the context of today’s agnostic culture – a culture which has lost touch with any form of ‘absolute’ – art provides one of the rare forms of cross-cultural transcendence, which affirms the significance of ‘man’ (humanity) over and above contingent cultural or historical locations.