Diderot and the Materiality of Posterity

Oliver Wunsch
  • Early Modern French Studies, January 2018, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/20563035.2018.1473113

How material decay affects the posterity of art and writing

What is it about?

Art decays over time, so why should artists put faith in posterity? This question became a major source of disagreement in the correspondence between Denis Diderot and the sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet. For Falconet, art’s physical instability rendered posterity meaningless. Diderot, however, refused to accept this perspective. He insisted that writers like him would save great art for future generations using vivid descriptions, delivering paintings and sculptures to posterity in words. This article argues that the disagreement between the two men stemmed from a broader historical conflict. Put simply, art and writing were developing divergent ways of travelling across time. The reproduction and dissemination of writing in the Enlightenment public sphere assured authors that their work would survive in a textual network that grew more and more indestructible in its diffuseness and redundancy. Art, however, was increasingly appreciated for material properties that resisted transmission and translation. Diderot grappled with this historical split throughout his writings on art, at times insisting on the sufficiency of language in preserving art for posterity and, at other moments, acknowledging the incommunicable materiality of visual media. His conflicted statements about artistic posterity offer an opportunity to consider what gets lost when history is reduced to the reproducible page.

Why is it important?

The eighteenth century was a moment that extensively reconstructed the physical lines of communication that link past, present, and future. Diderot’s writing on art offers an opportunity to examine how those lines were formed, what they were designed to carry, and what they fail to transmit.

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