Close up of "Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton", from Tombeaux des princes, de grands capitaines et autres hommes illustres (Tombs of Princes, Great Captains and Other Illustrious Men), by Eugene MacSwiny (London: 1741). (p. 161 of "Dare to Know")

Enlightening the Enlightenment

Dare to Know was a New York Times Best Art Book of 2022

Elizabeth M. Rudy —

How can the organization of a book about the Enlightenment convey the period’s scope, complexity, and persistent relevance? This was the challenge my co-editors and I tackled for Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment. In adopting an A-to-Z structure, we aimed to echo the polyvocality of the Enlightenment era’s debates, and to express our stance that there was not one Enlightenment but many. Twenty-six essays, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, explore themes that engage with the Enlightenment’s nuances and contradictions; and over twenty authors, representing a variety of expertise and diversity of opinion, were invited to contribute.

Our book does not address all the debates of the period, but it strives with its structure to highlight the disparate and often incongruous aspects of the era, with a particular focus on scientific investigation, religious belief, empathy, colonialism, the study of ancient civilizations worldwide, and political revolution. To acknowledge and amplify our selection of topics, eleven micro-essays called Spotlights are interspersed throughout the book. Each is focused on a single object or group of objects and is graphically distinguished by large reproductions, gold introductory pages, and sometimes foldouts. Three of the Spotlights were authored by paper conservators and present original research on the techniques and materials of drawings and prints.

Our principal model for the structure of our book was one of the most important illustrated publications of the Enlightenment: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s twenty-eight volume Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia; or, Analytical Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades; 1751–73). It was organized alphabetically, a novelty in the eighteenth century that dispensed with the thematic organization of earlier encyclopedias, placing equal value on each entry and encouraging the active participation of readers. The editors initially intended for it to have six hundred printed illustrations, but that number ballooned to roughly three thousand in the end.

Like the Encyclopédie, our book is premised on the conviction that the advancement of knowledge depends on collaboration, that a multiplicity of perspectives propels productive debate, and that drawn and printed images were critical for the mediation of the Enlightenment and the futures it would help to usher in.

To energize and modernize this A-to-Z approach, we brainstormed with colleagues and contributors on essay titles that would entice and perhaps even surprise the reader. These exchanges were incredibly fun, as we strove to include a range of straightforward and associative titles. Some, such as Imagination and Nature, allowed us to identify clearly for the reader that our book engages with several of the pervasive and defining themes of the period. While others, like Cruelty and Quack, provided us with the opportunity to alert the reader that our book also addresses many topics not typically included in art historical studies of the period. Still other titles, such as Reproduction, gave us the chance to signal our specific approach to a very large topic: rather than offering a history of prints during the era, this essay focuses how artists exploited the reproductive power of printmaking to specific ends throughout the century and in different locations around the globe.

The more clear-cut and sometimes literal titles are joined by evocative nouns, verbs, and adjectives that playfully allude to the essay topics within. For instance, the essay titled Jest is about caricature; the essay named Wager is about financial precarity and collapse; the essay about sexuality is titled XXX, the modern identifier of pornography; and the essay on the invention of multi-plate color printing is named after the most fleeting pigment in this process, Yellow. Coming up with these associative titles was the most enjoyable part of the collaborative process, as we searched for innovative ways to introduce essay topics. Some, such as Human, Time, or Venus, remain inscrutable until the reader dives into them, which we intended as an extension of the exhibition’s provocation – that is, to dare to know.

Several of the essay topics in our book intersect and overlap. In another nod to the Encyclopédie, we made these connections explicit by linking the texts to each other by cross-references. These are flagged for the reader in the text with the icon of an open eye printed in gold, and the title of the related essay appears in the adjacent margin in gold, capital letters. In the Encyclopédie, these kinds of cross-references provocatively lead to unexpected conjunctions and diverging points of view on the Enlightenment and the role of images in it. We hope our cross-references produce a similar result in our book, while also facilitating a less scripted trajectory through the text.

Elizabeth M. Rudy is the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

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