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. footnote

‘Aesthetic’ is commonly defined (see, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary) as having three meanings: (a) received by the senses; (b) referring to beauty; and (c) of superior taste. The last need not detain us, since sociological approaches have truly demonstrated the historical variability and vulnerability of ‘taste’. footnote1 The other two meanings we can usefully translate into the questions of pleasure and value. When someone says a piece of music or a poem makes their hair stand on end, when Cézanne records in his diary that he feels his eyes bleeding as he looks at what he is painting, they refer to sensations which might be called an aesthetic mode of feeling. A possible equivalent to these heightened sensory perceptions is sexual pleasure, and indeed certain ‘pleasurable’ features of art (abundance, extravagance of expression, the tension and resolution characteristic of much Western classical music for example) can readily be interpreted in more directly sexual analogies. In general, however, the advocates of an aesthetic mode of sensation see it as a separate faculty. The object of this mode of perception may not be seen as identical to ‘beauty’, since it could be recognized that a work of art was ‘of great value’ without being tied to a particular definition of beauty.

The questions raised by the term ‘aesthetic’ may be summarized as follows: (1) Can we say that there is a distinctive faculty or mode of perception called ‘aesthetic’ and what would be the nature of the pleasure afforded? (2) Can we identify objects or works to which universal aesthetic value adheres? These questions are difficult to formulate in a non-circular way and the history of attempts to get to grips with them is, perhaps surprisingly, very sparse. Aesthetics constitutes a minor subfield of philosophy in which the questions are considered in the abstract (what is beauty? and so on) rather than in respect to the claims of particular instances. Art history, the subject where one would expect to see aesthetic matters considered, is strikingly silent, tending professionally towards tracing the influence of X on Y and delighting in the niceties of obscure attributions. Art criticism tends to emphasize formal properties of a work rather than relating these to aesthetic pleasure and value. This situation seems curious, since art and literary history and criticism do not suffer from any reticence in assessing and grading their objects of study. However, in a remarkable number of instances the works are ranked on a range of criteria that are not aesthetic: a work is stoical, uplifting, cathartic, illuminating or whatever. What is often not shown is how and why formal properties of the work (situated in an understanding of the different dimensions of particular art forms) might account for the value assigned.

The question might be looked at another way by asking if the aesthetic properties of a work can be differentiated from its meaning. This is highly problematic. Poetry, for instance, is characterized by condensation of language (in a non-Freudian sense)—a multiplicity of meanings arise from one signifier. This surplus of meaning could be regarded as distinctively aesthetic. Yet the reverse is also held—that the aesthetic is precisely constituted in the excess of the signifier over the signified. As Terry Eagleton puts it: ‘if you approach me at a bus stop and murmur “thou still unravished bride of quietness”, then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary. I know this because the texture, rhythm and resonance of your words are in excess of their abstractable meaning . . .’ footnote2 Formulations of this kind are inconclusive since they apply equally well to situations where no question of the aesthetic arises. Many an Oscar Wilde epigram can be said to generate surplus meaning without being regarded as an instantiation of ‘the literary’ or of aesthetic value. Many academic papers flaunt a ‘texture, rhythm and resonance of language’ clearly in excess of any abstractable meaning, but they are not, by this token, deemed works of ‘literature’. The unresolved relationship between the categories of meaning and the aesthetic underlies the vexed position of the latter in Marxist (and in sociological) criticism today.

One major recent historical barrier to serious consideration of aesthetic questions has been the dominant influence of the concept of ideology in critical studies. The ghost of Lukács has yet to be laid in a critical tradition that may long since have rejected class-reductionism but has been content to argue the toss over whether a given work is ‘really about’ class conflict or gender difference for instance. Criticism of many classic texts often takes the form of an unending procession of ‘readings’ that claim to have uncovered the essential ideological message of the text. That such readings, by Marxists as well as bourgeois critics, are children of their time is demonstrated in R. Frankenberg’s history of Marxist critics on Wuthering Heights. footnote3