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New Left Review I/218, July-August 1996


Dave Beech, John Roberts

Spectres of the Aesthetic

Questions on art which were once seen as overloaded with liberal sentiment are now being taken seriously by the philosophical Left in the English-speaking world. At the heart of this swirl of revision and revival, art is being employed by aesthetic discourse to re-examine questions of subjectivity, judgement, freedom and truth. In a critical response to the widely perceived crisis of political and artistic values, these writers aim to reinvigorate the philosophical question of value through the conjunction of ethics and aesthetics. We want to argue, however, that the ethical content of aesthetics is secured in this instance by the actual diminishment of value, particularly in relation to the pleasures of the body and the problems of contemporary art. Like Odysseus strapped to the mast, the aestheticized body obtains its delights by immobilizing, restricting and denying itself. In other words, by stressing a certain aspect of the experience of art, the new writing on aesthetics suppresses the critique of the categories of art that have occurred this century, but also suppresses art as a practical category of living and contested culture. One of our concerns, therefore, is to trace how aesthetics constitutes those things—art and the body—which it claims to describe. To this end, we argue that the recent revival of the philosophy of aesthetics contributes to the deeper failure of aesthetics to register what would count as culture and pleasure in its pursuit of art and judgement. Indeed, to do this would involve connecting such pleasures to those who are manifestly excluded from the tastes and privileges of this world of judgement. Thus we seek to take the philosophical defence of what it considers to be pleasure out of the realms of ethical abstraction and make it concrete through the demands of precisely those bodies that are suppressed by the philosophy of aesthetics: the philistine and the voluptuous.

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