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Four Ways of Measuring the Distance between Alchemy and Contemporary Art

Author(s): James Elkins

Journal: Hyle : International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry
ISSN 1433-5158

Volume: 9;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 105;
Date: 2003;
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Keywords: philosophy of chemistry | alchemy | aesthetics | modern art | postmodern art

Alchemy has always had its ferocious defenders, and a small minority of artists remain interested in alchemical meanings and substances. In this essay I will suggest two reasons why alchemy is marginal to current visual art, and two more reasons why alchemical thinking remains absolutely central. Briefly: alchemy is irrelevant because (1) it is has been a minority interest from early modernism to the present, and therefore (2) it is outside the principal conversations about modernism and postmodernism; but alchemy is central because (3) it provides the best language to explain the fascination of oil paint, and (4) it is one of the best models for understanding the contemporary aversion to full logical or rational sense.
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