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New Left Review I/161, January-February 1987

Michèle Barrett

Max Raphael and the Question of Aesthetics

Questions of aesthetics, never unduly prominent in Marxist approaches to culture, have recently become relegated to an extremely marginal position in theoretical and critical debates. It is not that Marxism has failed to develop a tradition of work on aesthetics—for in the past it has—but that such concerns are currently out of fashion and, indeed, seen as politically reprehensible. Insofar as this generalization is right, it poses major theoretical and political problems, suggesting in particular that Marxists are unable to engage with bourgeois criticism, dominant educational practices, or popular beliefs. Evasion of the question of aesthetic pleasure and value has left not only Marxist criticism but also radical cultural intervention in a relatively weak position. For this reason I shall argue that it would be useful to re-open the question of materialist aesthetics. Later sections will critically consider the analysis of the art critic Max Raphael, whose work illuminates both the points of interest and the dangers inherent in such a project. [*] This article is a revised version of a talk given at the university of Illinois in 1983. The original will appear, illustrated, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by L. Grossberg and C. Nelson, forthcoming. Comments from Peter Dews, Cora Kalpan, Francis Mulhern and Janet Wolff are gratefully acknowledged.

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