Robert Pippin '70

When did we abandon beauty, and why?

 By Leslie Virostek

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are striking to look at and innovative in terms of technique. But like much other modernist art, they’re not beautiful in the traditional sense of the word. Philosopher Robert B. Pippin ’70 of the University of Chicago wants to know why. More broadly, he wants to know what kind of society would give rise to art that eschews the beautiful and ideal in favor of work that is innovative and often shocking. When, exactly, did we abandon beauty, and why?

Pippin, an English major who became fascinated with philosophy at Trinity thanks to Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy Drew Hyland, is going to have an opportunity to research these and other questions, thanks to a doubly surprising and wholly unexpected $1.5-million gift. Pippin was one of five recipients to win a Mellon

Distinguished Achievement Award last fall, a three-year fellowship whose purpose is to support research in the humanities. Given Pippin’s credentials, what’s not surprising is that he would receive such a prestigious award. The author of six books, he is the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College, as well as the chair of the Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program.

The first surprise was that the award even existed. Pippin says nobody knew anything about it, himself included. When he saw the overnight delivery envelope from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he assumed it was a proposal he was being asked to review. Instead it was a letter saying he had just won an award that is slightly larger in monetary terms than a MacArthur Fellowship and a Nobel Prize combined. That was the second surprise—the sheer magnitude of the funding. Pippin says the Mellon Foundation’s intent was to send the message that research in the humanities is just as vital to universities as scientific or technological research. He says, “They very self-consciously were trying to make a statement.”

So what exactly does a philosopher do with $1.5 million? For starters, Pippin will spend some of the money on creating opportunities for the exchange of ideas. Says Pippin, “The thing that makes humanities research possible is simply conversation.” He plans to bring a number of distinguished thinkers to Chicago. Some will be invited to participate in interdisciplinary graduate study workshops, while others may teach a course or a course segment as guest lecturers. All of these experts will bring something to bear on one of three research areas Pippin is pursuing.

The first is his inquiry into the demise of the beautiful ideal not only in visual art, but also music, dance, theater, literature, and culture. “There’s some kind of unified phenomenon going on in modernism,” notes Pippin, who believes that modernism must be examined as more than an aesthetic movement. “You have to take a broader view of the problem so you can see what other things in society were being rejected or appreciated or accepted,” says Pippin. We have to ask, “Why did modern, relatively advanced, technologically sophisticated, democratic societies in the 19th century begin to lose their interest in the beautiful?”

Pippin’s second research project explores the question of what it means to lead a free life according to Hegelian theory. “One great ideal in the West since the onset of modernity in the 17th century is to try to figure out what the conditions are under which one’s life is one’s own,” says Pippin. The discussion can be framed in terms of individual and political freedom, but Hegel construed a social theory of freedom. “Hegel has a very rich and large-scale theory about this problem being solvable only if our attention is widened, not just to the relation between an individual and his or her life but the social context within which people grow up, mature, learn what they need to learn, and begin to have relations with other people,” says Pippin. “I have an ax to grind. I don’t think this is well understood.” Pippin’s analysis and reinterpretation of Hegel’s theory of freedom will, he hopes, illuminate its “relevance to contemporary debates and its own philosophical value.”

The final project involves a reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s views on the failure of desire in modern society. The Enlightenment, explains Pippin, promised to replace superstition and religion with reason, thereby creating a world of independent-thinking individuals. Instead, we’ve become “a mobile, mass, rootless consumer society.” Says Pippin, “What we’ve got is vast herds of sheep, in Nietzsche’s view. People don’t want more than a very limited range of satisfactions.” In this condition of modernity, Nietzsche wants to know: “What is it that human beings can find worth striving for that would inspire a kind of longing?”

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