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
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 artis
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
Anyone who has taken an interest in the new aestheticism over the past few years will no doubt have speculated on the wider political reasons for the Left’s return to aesthetics. There are a number of apparently compelling candidates, although the fact that they are obvious does not make them causally efficacious. These are the crisis of Marxism and the collapse of the Eastern European regimes and the Soviet Union, the rise of post-structuralism and Derridean deconstruction (which, by attacking the metaphysics of presence and by overtly textualizing philosophic activity, have transformed philosophic writing into the work of aesthetic, self-reflexive display), and the disappointment with postmodernism’s bureau-cratization of art’s critique of itself. Because these things have occurred does not mean that other things will necessarily follow in their wake, but the meanings that these events are taken to possess have provided an opportunity for the legitimization of subsequent choices. Nevertheless, even though the causal consequences of such events is uncertain, we can at least be sure of one causal factor in the development of the new aestheticism: the publication of the first English translation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in 1984.footnote3 Since then, there has been a growing assessment of the importance of Adorno for the recovery of the aesthetic debate. Adorno is seen as the only major thinker of the Western philosophic tradition to keep faith with the paradox of aesthetic autonomy as a theatre of ethical address. For Adorno, the paradox of aesthetic autonomy lies in the fact that, although art is marginal and commodifled, it is only art which is capable of providing an immanent critique of instrumental reason. The growth of literature on aesthetics by the English-speaking Left through
In 1990 three books were published that formed the opening shots of what has become the new aestheticism: Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Fredric Jameson’s Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic, and Andrew Bowie’s Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche.footnote4 Eagleton’s book, in particular, represented something of a publishing event, garnering a great deal of attention for its intimations of deep changes underway in the Left’s relationship to its own aesthetic past. Both Eagleton and Jameson attend to the problem of the aesthetic through Adorno’s remorseless insistence on the intractable contradictoriness of every aspect of everyday life. This is why the ruling figure of Eagleton’s book is the oxymoron, and this is what leads him to equivocation on the status of the aesthetic. This is also why the idea of totality is so important to Jameson, for he seeks to implicate art in social conflict by following the Adornian principle that all abstract philosophical questions are fundamentally historical ones. Bowie, on the other hand, does not treat aesthetics as re-enacting social contradictions, but rather takes the ‘paradox’ of the aesthetic as the starting point for the aesthetic grounding of the ethics. And this is what we see as the overriding project of the new aestheticism. We want to focus our attention initially on Bowie, then, because, regardless of these authors’ shared cultural terrain, it is his theory of aesthetic subjectivity that introduces and elaborates many of the assumptions, values and aspirations of the Left’s current rethinking of aesthetics.