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.
Our contention is that the body in the philosophy of aesthetics is emptied of the contingencies and conflicts of the everyday: those quotidian pleasures and brutalities produced by the functions, experiences and encounters of the commodified body. Inextricably linked to this, we argue, is a conception of art which is unduly protected from cultural division and the mundanity of culture as such. In other words, there is a tendency to treat art as inestimably worthy, noble or even as being among the greatest preoccupations of humanity, rather than as a series of ruminations and trouble-spots. It is this very question, the question of art’s benevolence, which is the core absence of the central concern of the new philosophic writing: the neo-Romantic defence of truth and freedom through art.
Arguments about emancipation and non-instrumental versions of truth as being prefigured in art, are usually associated—rightly or wrongly—with the Right and with the liberal tradition. What is significant about the new writing on aesthetics—hereafter, the new aestheticism—is that it reclaims aesthetics for the Left without any sense of ideological compromise with the Right. In this there is a clear continuity with an older Marxist tradition of aesthetic thinking, specifically that of Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno. Like Marcuse and Adorno, the new aestheticism turns to art and aesthetics as a source of transcendental ethics, an ethics that commits the individual to a form of responsibility that cannot be reduced to abiding by the law. Marcuse and Adorno are, of course, famous for their political absenteeism, but this was partly predicated on their unswerving conviction that culture is political through and through. For the new aestheticism, on the other hand, what is attractive about aesthetics is that it seems to offer ethics, truth and freedom as the very embodiment and result of non-partisanship. This defence of aesthetics as an ethically displaced politics is judged to be transcendentally emancipatory. We argue, however, that claims to liberation through art are impossible without the categories, forms and agencies of the partisan. The truth of partisanship is not blind to its own interests but acts as a corrective to what are enforced as universal interests. The critical categories we adopt at the end of this essay—the philistine, the practical and the voluptuous—are suggestive of the means by which the truth of partisanship can be given specific form in debates about aesthetics.
Our defence of art as a cultural category against the unreflective exclusions of the new aestheticism turns on how we understand the concept of artistic autonomy. In arguing against the conventional idea that the autonomy of art means its isolation from everything else, we will make space for the partisan. This is because to think of autonomy as non-partisan is to figure the relation between the particular and universal as already reconciled. To affirm art’s autonomy without drawing attention to the power of art’s institutions in constituting art as a category is a failure to extricate the question of autonomy from the constraints of the studio, the gallery, the magazine and so forth. The new aestheticists are complicit with this failure insofar as their defence of art’s autonomy is blinded by their illicit fission of art and cultural life, their refusal to see art as a cultural category. Our use of the term ‘blindness’ here is not adventitious. Kantian aesthetics speaks of blindness, such as the insensitivity of the philistine, but it may also be considered as itself blind, in its inability to acknowledge the diversity of bodily pleasure and approaches to art. Thus, whereas the new aestheticism might speak of the ‘blindness to aesthetics’footnote1 as a reproach to the (would-be) philistinism of the Left, the philistine is entitled to turn round and speak of the blindness of aesthetics, accusing it of abstinence, idleness and a hatred of the body intoxicated, surrendered and seduced. To talk of a blindness to aesthetics, then, is to mystify the function of aesthetics since Kant, amounting to a sort of cognitive blindness, to the suppression of bodily wants and needs in the name of a disinterested form of judgement and experience. This sense of aesthetics as being blind to its own blindnesses also forms the shared terrain of the various post-Kantian attacks on aesthetic philosophy. From Hegel and Heidegger to Pierre Bourdieu and Paul de Man, the post-aesthetic tradition has taken aesthetic judgement to be a kind of self-confirming myopia.footnote2 Two traditions face each other; blindness facing blindness without independent arbitration. But rather than plump for one, we want to play them off against each other, insisting that neither aesthetics nor its critique can go on living apart as if nothing was out of place. The alternative is not to be blind to both or not blind at all, but rather to begin from the assumption that blindness is constitutive of cultural experience. These are the spectres of the aesthetic.
The onlooker to this intellectual drama may experience a certain sense of déjà vu. The return to aesthetics has become almost a regular occurrence in philosophical, cultural and political history. The history of the Left and Marxism itself is punctuated with fundamentalist and heterodox revaluations of art and sensuousness. Although the new aestheticism thinks of itself as largely reclaiming aesthetics from the Right, there is a modern and pre-modern history of the Left’s engagement with aesthetic experience; one can think of the writings of William Morris, Oscar Wilde, E.P. Thompson (particularly his critique of Althusser), Meyer Schapiro, Leon Trotsky, and also Gerald Winstanley—whose opposition to authority through a defence of the five senses is surprisingly germane. Naturally, one ‘reads’ each return or reworking as related in some way to the others. It is a mistake, however, to treat such shifts of attention as iterations, to think that to have an opinion about, say, the cultural debates of the seventies and the thirties, or Tel Quel, is to have an opinion about any subsequent returns to aesthetics. It would be right, therefore, to give historical substance to this sense of déjà vu, so long as it is clear that this does not mean that the repeated return to aesthetics carries the same assumptions. Each return resituates the aesthetic debate under different political and intellectual circumstances. In this respect, the new aestheticism is correct to speak of the blindness of the Left to aesthetics not because their rupture is unique, but precisely because the tradition of aesthetics on the Left is a broken and intermittent one. Given this, we need to recognize that the new aestheticism speaks of the Left’s blindness after a period in which the Left’s attitude to aesthetics has not been of simple neglect but of aggressive suspicion and denunciation. In the seventies and early eighties, structuralist Marxism, the feminist critique of autonomous individuality, and the development of an anti-colonialist cultural politics decisively transformed the discussion of aesthetics into a discussion of ideology. In some quarters, aesthetics became confined to a caricatured realm of Romanticism. As a liberating rupture within the Left, this post-’68 critique of art and aesthetics is the revolutionary spectre that still haunts aesthetics as a philosophical category. As such, it shadows their confident endorsement of the political crisis of this cultural critique. This takes us on to broader considerations.