I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard...there was much talk about purity, and I had begun to be proud of being impure. Primo Levifootnote1
Since the publication of our essay ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ (nlr 218) and a number of other writings by ourselves on philistinism and contemporary art, we have found ourselves subject to a certain amount of critical attention and controversy.footnote2 Malcolm Bull and Malcolm Quinn have challenged our conception of the philistine, Julian Stallabrass and Stewart Home have questioned our political reading of the new art in Britain, and now Andrew Bowie and Jay Bernstein have examined our theory of aesthetics and subjectivity.footnote3 These exchanges have often produced more heat than light, which is not to say that they have not produced any light at all. In fact, these exchanges have undoubtedly contributed to
However, if we acknowledge the value of these contributions to our ‘research programme’, we must also point out a number of misconstruals and confusions which have exacerbated the would-be scandalousness of our position. Thus we have been particularly surprised by what the ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ has been taken to be claiming for the philistine, aesthetics and art. In general, these writers exaggerate the political, cultural and epistemological objectives of our critique of what we called the ‘new aestheticism’. What we present as a set of suspicions about the contemporary turn to aesthetics in philosophy and art history is taken to be an antipathy to the aesthetic and the value of art. This is surprising because at numerous points throughout our essay we go to great lengths to make clear that our critique of the ‘new aestheticism’ and our concept of the philistine is internal to the philosophy of aesthetics and the criticism and practice of art. As we stated, ‘neither aesthetics nor its critique can go on living apart as if nothing was out of place’.footnote6 Rather than claiming that our concept of the philistine shatters art and aesthetics for good, our final sentence is properly reticent about its subversiveness: ‘It might be that the world has got as much to say about art as art has got to say about the world, and that judgements about art have to survive in the same world as other judgements’.footnote7
This means that the characterization of us as philistines—or rather intellectuals slumming it as philistines—is poorly conceived. ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ may set out to defend the philistine against its philosophical abuses, but it does not set out to supplant the aesthete or the intellectual as models of self-knowledge and reason. In other words, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ is not a ‘defence’ of the philistine—in the manner of a defence of art, or some other worthy item—it is an immanent critique of the repressions and aporias of art history and the philosophy of aesthetics by way of a consideration of that which they exclude: philistine forms of attention and agency. However, whereas in that essay we figured the philistine as a ‘corrective’ to the ‘new aestheticism’, we now wish to extend our inquiry into the consequences of suspending or erasing the customary derogation of the philistine. This leaves open, as work to do, the question of the exact cultural and political consequences of our theory of the philistine. It is urgent, in our view, to acknowledge the political dimension of the derogatory use of the term, but it is ill-advised to anticipate the outcome of the research project which interrogates the social and cultural divisions of a society which takes this derogation as read. As such, the philistine is of interest precisely because it is a derogatory term, yet it would be of no interest at all if we could not rethink the philistine in a way that puts a question mark over the content of this derogation.
But why, in a dispute about the operations of power within discourses on culture, did we settle on the writings of a small number of left intellectuals, rather than, say, the institutionalized authority of postmodernism? It would seem as if we have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut; the new philosophers of aesthetics certainly do not have anything like the same kind of institutional power and cultural influence enjoyed by critical postmodernist and the like. Yet this lack of cultural power is slightly misleading, for the philosopher’s turn to aesthetics offers a charitable and comfortable home for the many attacks on the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Left since the 1960s: the social history of art, cultural studies, women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies, post-colonial theory, and the philosophy of science. We are all now familiar with the homeostasis of these relations and groups by the use of the ugly reductivisms of ‘political correctness’, a term that the philosophers themselves are not too adverse to using. It is undoubtedly the case that the institutionalization of identity politics has made critical postmodernism an intellectual liability, given the ease with which its politics of difference is self-defeatingly interpreted in terms of constituencies of identity instead of the dialectic of power between groups and classes. This is why the authority of critical postmodernism should be challenged. Critical postmodernism has become a sympathetic ideology for the weak post-labourist social democracy of the 1990s.
But the problem with the ‘new aestheticism’ is that it challenges critical postmodernism on the wrong grounds and from the wrong direction, allowing Bowie and Bernstein to confuse our criticism of the ‘new aestheticism’ with a support of ‘postmodernism’ or some aspects of it. In fact our theory of the philistine was designed specifically as a critique
Bowie and Bernstein object to our use of the philistine in a critique of the ‘new aestheticism’ for its apparent lack of philosophical and historical ambition: ‘Short-term benefits are thus traded for long-term solutions’, claims Bernstein; footnote8 ‘The freedom involved in both aesthetic reception and production of the kind at issue here is not freedom for voluptuous bodily pleasures without guilt; it is instead the ability imaginatively to engage with and transcend constraints, in ways which feed into so many aspects (including erotic aspects) of our dealings with others’, says Bowie.footnote9 What is at issue is whether the philistine of our writing threatens the ‘substitution of illusory pleasure for the radical demand for happiness’ (Bernstein),footnote10 because whatever the philistine has it does not have ‘the aesthetic claim to disclose truth, characteristic of masterpieces like Whiteread’s House’ (Bowie).footnote11 Such anxieties about the philistine are, as we will show, widespread and deeply entrenched. Indeed, the dual assumptions that art discloses truth and (therefore) that the philistine’s pleasures amount to an illusory happiness have given shape and weight to the derogation of the philistine throughout the social history of modern cultural division.