First proposal for a course on mysticism and art theory at the Centre for Continuing Education, the University of Sydney, 1999

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

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First proposal for a course on the impact of mysticism on art and art theory at the Centre for Continuing Education, the University of Sydney, 1999 

In 1999 I submitted a proposal to teach a course titled ‘Art and Ideology through Modernism’ to the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sydney. My referees were a professor in the department of fine arts at the university and a prominent Australian art writer.

After numerous phone calls to the CCE because I had received neither decision nor even communication from them, I rang and asked the woman who answered the phone if they had made a decision.

She asked me my name. She had a look, came back to the phone and said that it appeared my proposal had been lost. She then asked me the name of my proposed course. When I told this provincial fool, she said, as though my proposal was a joke, ‘That course wouldn’t suit our demographic’ and hung up.

My proposal was also rejected at the same time on a similarly myopic basis at the equivalent section of the University of NSW. At first the person who recommended the courses was very keen but when I told her I had terminated my enrolment in disgust at the College of Fine Arts (now known as UNSW Art & Design), that was the end of the matter.

My reasons for terminating my enrolment at COFA (the title of my thesis was ‘Neoplatonism and the Cubist Aesthetic’) included the breaking of the agreement I had made with the head of the college – which was the basis of my accepting their offer of a place in their Masters by research program – that I be allowed to complete a performance piece I had worked on for three years during my BA there, together with my thesis; that for two and a half years, in fundamental breach of the university’s regulations, no-one would supervise me, rejecting me as a philosophical novice and ‘auto-didact’, while they all waited for me to drop off and go away, and the refusal to allow me to upgrade to a PhD – i.e. to process a full thesis – when all the evidence could not have been stronger in support of my wish to do so (including my doing subjects I was not required to do), after years of effort during the heyday and decline of that stage of capitalist ideology known as ‘modernism’ and the rise and fall of the subsequent fashion – ‘postmodernism’, to develop the basis for nothing less than an entire cultural re-reading, an honest and necessary cultural re-reading exposing the functioning of class and class ideology – a spiritual re-reading’ of which is now being taught at the CCE by a later graduate of the same college, which ‘spiritual re-reading’ the CCE refers to on its website as ‘ground-breaking’.

I never received any written communication or email from either section of both universities declining my offer and thanking me for having put my proposal to them – both rejections only occurred as a result of my phone calls to them.

My proposal is below

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Philip Stanfield


The University of Sydney

The Centre for Continuing Education

Proposal for course – Summer 2000

‘Art and Ideology through Modernism’

The course over six weeks of one-hourly papers and discussions will entail an investigation of the relationship between art and ideology focusing on Modernism. Because of both the need to establish the philosophical basis of my argument and the significance of that basis, the first four weeks will be spent on four key philosophers and the last two on Cubism, pivotal to Modernism (itself a period of capitalist visual ideology). I will use images to illustrate my argument and to facilitate discussion.

Through papers on the four philosophers, it is my intention to set out a current both philosophical and ideological which is fundamental to Modernism and to identify key elements in that current. I will then apply this theorising to an analysis of Cubism. I will use Cubism (in one sense, literally) to illustrate my argument. I will argue that Cubism was pivotal to Modernism because it enabled the maintenance of a particular visual ideology. I will question the failure of art theoreticians to recognise and address this philosophical and ideological content of Modernism.

Week 1: Introduction and Plato

Identification of course purpose. Why I have chosen these four philosophers – what are those elements they have in common on which I intend to concentrate? In what ways is this philosophical current ideological? How is this current related to Modernism? Why have I chosen to discuss Modernism through Cubism? Plato’s theorising as it bears on art.

Suggested Reading: Plato. The Republic. Trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

Week 2: Plotinus

It has been argued that through his mysticism, Plotinus may have been an even greater influence on Western thought than Plato. I will discuss his philosophy based on the three hypostases in detail, with the aim of giving some indication of how much can be gained from a thorough study of the system of this ‘forgotten’ philosopher, particularly in relation to Western art and Modernism.

Suggested Reading: Plotinus. The Enneads. Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991.

Week 3: Nietzsche

Nietzsche is recognised as an important figure in the history of Modernism. An exploration of differences between the form of Nietzsche’s thought and its content, and of common misunderstandings of his philosophy as they bear on my argument regarding Modernism – e.g. that in asserting that God is dead, Nietzsche argued for the death of God. Nietzsche’s aesthetics of self.

Suggested Reading: F. Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. 1872. in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Week 4: Bergson

Henri Bergson had an enormous influence on the development of Western culture at the turn of the twentieth century. His philosophy is generally misunderstood as an attempt to enable a deeper understanding of the physical world in accordance with scientific developments at the time rather than having, as it did, a spiritual purpose which gives meaning to terms central to his philosophy such as ‘life’, ‘vision’, and ‘movement’. How Bergson ties in with the current I am arguing for and how his philosophy bears on Modernism.

Suggested Reading: H. Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1907. Trans. A. Mitchell. Lanham, 1983.

Week 5: Cubism

Having identified and addressed the elements of and developments in a current connecting the above four philosophers I will move through the development of Cubism by Picasso and Braque, arguing that this art, as with Modernism as a whole, cannot be understood without an understanding of this philosophical current. With the assistance of slides, a number of works by Picasso and Braque will be discussed. Why is Cubism generally and correctly believed to be pivotal to Modernism in the visual arts? Developments in form become developments in content. If ideology is a system of beliefs delimited by interests (Morawski), what are the beliefs implicit in Cubism and whose interests are represented by this art? How has this been achieved? Patrons and buyers of Cubism.

Suggested Reading: N. Hadjinicolaou. Art History and the Class Struggle. London: Pluto, 1978.

Week 6: Cubism and conclusion

Concluding analysis and discussion of Cubism and of the ways in which Cubism maintained and facilitated the maintenance of the visual ideology of capitalism.  The relationship between Cubism and the later development of Modernism will be discussed and exemplified.

Suggested Reading: V. Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. (1911) New York: Dover, 1977; The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. Exhibition Catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York: Abbeville Press,

Second proposal for a course on the impact of mysticism on art and art theory at the Centre for Continuing Education, the University of Sydney, 2008


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