to Phong Bui
Between Skin and Paper

Que je les plains, ces pauvres savants! Ils ne savent jamais prononcer ces quatre mots: je ne sais pas.

—Catherine the Great1

There was a time when I despised the common people, who are ignorant of everything. It was Rousseau who disabused me. This illusory superiority vanished, and I have learned to honor people.


This is not an apology for ignorance. Rather, this is an attempt to suggest that there are many more avenues of knowledge than we think—or, that knowledge cannot be the preserve of a happy few, especially when it comes to art.

I borrow the title of this short essay from a quip by Catherine the Great in a conversation with the comte de Ségur: this was by the way of settling a score with Diderot, whom she had ‘hired’ for several years as a professional thinker/entertainer/enlightener (what today would be called a theoretician) to her Imperial Majesty’s court. A problem arose as the French critic/philosopher expected to see a greater impact out of his daily conversations/lessons with Catherine II; she, on the other hand, felt perfectly contented to be entertained with alluring and lofty French ideas, without further ado. She later confided to the comte de Ségur, and explained, with some bitterness, how irreconcilable her expectations were from Diderot’s:

Alors, lui parlant franchement, je lui dis: Monsieur Diderot, j’ai entendu avec le plus grand plaisir tout ce que votre brillant esprit vous a inspiré, mais avec vos grands principes, que je comprends très-bien, on ferait de beaux livres et de mauvaise besogne. Vous oubliez dans tous vos plans de réforme la différence de nos deux positions; vous ne travaillez que sur le papier, qui souffre tout; il est tout uni, souple, et n’oppose d’obstacles ni à votre imagination ni à votre plume, tandis que moi, pauvre impératrice, je travaille sur la peau humaine, qui est autrement irritable et chatouilleuse.

Je suis persuadée que dès lors il me prit en pitié, me regardant comme un esprit étroit et vulgaire. Dès ce moment il ne me parla plus que de littérature, et la politique disparut de nos entretiens.3

Here is an example of the blatant gap between two forms of power that are always at odds with each other: the executive vs. intellectual powers. The gap between practice and theory has always been of paramount concerns to those who practice thinking as a profession. Kant almost sounded like an arbitrator (thirty years later) between Catherine the Great and Diderot, when he published in 1793 a pamphlet titled On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice.’ At first, he seems to land on the Tsarina’s side:

[…] theoreticians will be found who can never in all their lives be practical, since they lack judgment. There are, for example, doctors or lawyers who did well during their schooling but who do not know how to act when asked to give advice.

But, in a characteristic manner, Kant subtly decides to send both the pure theoretician and the pure practitioner, back to back—both professions need each other, (this is Kant’s main point), and each position, taken separately, is wrong-headed, without the complement of the other:

Yet it is easier to excuse an ignoramus who claims that theory is unnecessary and superfluous in his supposed practice than a would-be expert who admits the value of theory of teaching purposes, for example as a mental exercise, but at the same time maintains that it is quite different in practice, and that anyone leaving his studies to go out into the world will realise he has been pursuing empty ideals and philosopher’s dreams.4

Moving forward, in 1932, Adorno sanctimoniously declared: “Music must become cognition.“5 For a century or so, this kind of prescriptive cognitive approach has been de rigueur in the art world: theory got the grip on all.

Recently, things have turned around: we finally “have learned to honor people.” 6


  1. “I feel so sorry for those poor scholars! They are utterly incapable of pronouncing these four words: I DO NOT KNOW.” Quoted by le comte de Ségur, Mémoires, souvenirs et anecdotes, 442.
  2. Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, AK, Berlin, 1934, vol. XX, 44. Quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations, trans. Andrew Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 41 (translation revised).
  3. Catherine the Great, op. cit., 444 – 5. My thanks to David Carrier for this reference.
  4. Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, 61 – 3.
  5. In J.M. Bernstein, Frankfurt School. vol. 3, 214.
  6. Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, AK, Berlin, 1934, vol. XX, 44.Quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations, trans. Andrew Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 41 (translation revised).


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.