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Daniel Birnbaum on Jean-François Lyotard’s “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”

Page from Artforum 22, no. 8 (April 1984). Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” Shown: Caspar David Friedrich, Abend (Evening), 1824.

AT THE VERY PEAK OF HIS FAME in the mid-1980s, Jean-François Lyotard, one of Europe’s most prominent thinkers, staged an art-world intervention. He did so with essentially a few dense texts and one major exhibition. The essay “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” appeared in the April 1984 issue of Artforum, with a contributor’s note mentioning that its author was at the time preparing “Les Immatériaux” (The Immaterials), a sprawling exhibition that would open a year later at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was the first Artforum article I ever read; to this day, it remains the one that has had the greatest impact on me, not only for its sweeping address and grand ambitions but also for its impeccable timing, considering Lyotard’s coincident turn to curating.

Thanks to this essay, as well as “Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime,” a shorter essay published two years earlier,

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