Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Tyman, Stephen


This dissertation explores the significance of figurative art for contemporary cultural life. It is motivated by the fact that such art is often regarded as a thing of the past and largely replaced by works born of more recent movements. I argue that figurative art bears possibilities that are not yet exhausted, and moreover that there is something about our age that calls for the creation of figurative works. The first part addresses a diagnosis of modernity offered by Gregg Horowitz. For him, the triumphant attitude of the age hides our inability to digest a series of traumatic losses - the loss of nature's normativity, of art's significance for cross-generational transmission of values, and of history's demand to carry forward the values of previous generations. He sees in art the opportunity to bring such traumatic loss to reflection, and calls for the aesthetics of mourning as art's contemporary vocation. In order to demonstrate the importance of an element of mourning, the discussion of Horowitz is followed by an account of Gianni Vattimo's attempt to retrieve art from a position of inessentiality. The lack of a tragic moment in his project highlights some of the drawbacks connected to such an omission. In the second part of the project I insist that, though the element of mourning is necessary, we should not stop there in the search for art's contemporary vocation. Using the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty I sustain the hope that we may recover some form of continuity without disregarding the trauma of loss. Figurative art is particularly suitable for this task because it is more likely to preserve the integrity of its subject matter rather than breaking it down into its constitutive parts, potentially carrying forward elements of past modes of relating to our world.




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