[BOOK] Signature and Perfection

Signature and Perfection. Aesthetics, Psychology, Anthropology in the Work of Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793), Dijon, Presses du réel, 2017. In the collection « Œuvres en sociétés ».

[Published in French]

This book is an essay conceived as an intellectual portrait of the German writer, psychologist and art theorist Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793), whose purpose is to investigate the relationships between aesthetics, psychology and anthropology in the second half of the 18th century, and the importance of their simultaneous development for the debates about art after 1800.

Moritz remains rather unknown outside of Germany, where he is considered as an essential author for understanding the formation of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline, but also as experimental research, literary field and art critic in the 18th century. By foreshadowing an educational vision of the art experience, Moritz anchored the aesthetic debate in a psychological and anthropological dimension, which went beyond the narrow field of art.

Moritz was first known in his lifetime as a psychologist and a writer. He funded the first journal of experimental psychology where the writings of specialists – doctors or philosophers – were collected together with police reports, real or imaginary autobiographies, anonymous accounts of dreams, literary extracts or texts of mystics. Moritz also won recognition for his writings on art; the most famous was written in Rome in 1786 alongside Goethe who would, some years later, use many of his ideas. After his stay in Italy, Moritz taught art theory at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. His eclecticism influenced a generation of artists and theorists such as Jean Paul, Friedrich Schlegel and Schiller.

The merit of Moritz is that of having been able to combine, thanks to a dynamic definition of the work of art, a theory of creation with a theory of reception. In the artist, he saw a spectator in front of nature, while the spectator became the architect of the relationship he built with the artwork. Indeed, with Moritz, the artwork acquired for the first time in the history of art theory the status of a radically autonomous object whose body nevertheless remains fragmentary, because its assimilation to the remaining traces of a creative movement can be completed only in the present act. Moritz thus laid the foundations for a debate on the part of history and the part of direct experience in art that continues today.