At the end of the fifteenth of his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind Schiller states a paradox and makes a promise. He declares that ‘Man is only completely human when he plays’, and assures us that this paradox is capable ‘of bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living’. We could reformulate this thought as follows: there exists a specific sensory experience—the aesthetic—that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community. There are different ways of coming to terms with this statement and this promise. You can say that they virtually define the ‘aesthetic illusion’ as a device which merely serves to mask the reality that aesthetic judgement is structured by class domination. In my view that is not the most productive approach. You can say, conversely, that the statement and the promise were only too true, and that we have experienced the reality of that ‘art of living’ and of that ‘play’, as much in totalitarian attempts at making the community into a work of art as in the everyday aestheticized life of a liberal society and its commercial entertainment. Caricatural as it may appear, I believe this attitude is more pertinent. The point is that neither the statement nor the promise were ineffectual. At stake here is not the ‘influence’ of a thinker, but the efficacy of a plot—one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience.

This plot has taken shape in theoretical discourses and in practical attitudes, in modes of individual perception and in social institutions—museums, libraries, educational programmes; and in commercial inventions as well. My aim is to try to understand the principle of its efficacy, and of its various and antithetical mutations. How can the notion of ‘aesthetics’ as a specific experience lead at once to the idea of a pure world of art and of the self-suppression of art in life, to the tradition of avant-garde radicalism and to aestheticization of common existence? In a sense, the whole problem lies in a very small preposition. Schiller says that aesthetic experience will bear the edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the art of living. The entire question of the ‘politics of aesthetics’—in other words, of the aesthetic regime of art—turns on this short conjunction. The aesthetic experience is effective inasmuch as it is the experience of that and. It grounds the autonomy of art, to the extent that it connects it to the hope of ‘changing life’. Matters would be easy if we could merely say—naïvely—that the beauties of art must be subtracted from any politicization, or—knowingly—that the alleged autonomy of art disguises its dependence upon domination. Unfortunately this is not the case: Schiller says that the‘play drive’—Spieltrieb—will reconstruct both the edifice of art and the edifice of life.

Militant workers of the 1840s break out of the circle of domination by reading and writing not popular and militant, but ‘high’ literature. The bourgeois critics of the 1860s denounce Flaubert’s posture of ‘art for art’s sake’ as the embodiment of democracy. Mallarmé wants to separate the ‘essential language’ of poetry from common speech, yet claims that it is poetry which gives the community the ‘seal’ it lacks. Rodchenko takes his photographs of Soviet workers or gymnasts from an overhead angle which squashes their bodies and movements, to construct the surface of an egalitarian equivalence of art and life. Adorno says that art must be entirely self-contained, the better to make the blotch of the unconscious appear and denounce the lie of autonomized art. Lyotard contends that the task of the avant-garde is to isolate art from cultural demand so that it may testify all the more starkly to the heteronomy of thought. We could extend the list ad infinitum. All these positions reveal the same basic emplotment of an and, the same knot binding together autonomy and heteronomy.

Understanding the ‘politics’ proper to the aesthetic regime of art means understanding the way autonomy and heteronomy are originally linked in Schiller’s formula.footnote1 This may be summed up in three points. Firstly, the autonomy staged by the aesthetic regime of art is not that of the work of art, but of a mode of experience. Secondly, the ‘aesthetic experience’ is one of heterogeneity, such that for the subject of that experience it is also the dismissal of a certain autonomy. Thirdly, the object of that experience is ‘aesthetic’, in so far as it is not—or at least not only—art. Such is the threefold relation that Schiller sets up in what we can call the ‘original scene’ of aesthetics.

At the end of the fifteenth letter, he places himself and his readers in front of a specimen of ‘free appearance’, a Greek statue known as the Juno Ludovisi. The statue is ‘self-contained’, and ‘dwells in itself’, as befits the traits of the divinity: her ‘idleness’, her distance from any care or duty, from any purpose or volition. The goddess is such because she wears no trace of will or aim. Obviously, the qualities of the goddess are those of the statue as well. The statue thus comes paradoxically to figure what has not been made, what was never an object of will. In other words: it embodies the qualities of what is not a work of art. (We should note in passing that formulas of the type ‘this is’ or ‘this is not’ a work of art, ‘this is’ or ‘this is not a pipe’, have to be traced back to this originary scene, if we want to make of them more than hackneyed jokes.)

Correspondingly, the spectator who experiences the free play of the aesthetic in front of the ‘free appearance’ enjoys an autonomy of a very special kind. It is not the autonomy of free Reason, subduing the anarchy of sensation. It is the suspension of that kind of autonomy. It is an autonomy strictly related to a withdrawal of power. The ‘free appearance’ stands in front of us, unapproachable, unavailable to our knowledge, our aims and desires. The subject is promised the possession of a new world by this figure that he cannot possess in any way. The goddess and the spectator, the free play and the free appearance, are caught up together in a specific sensorium, cancelling the oppositions of activity and passivity, will and resistance. The ‘autonomy of art’ and the ‘promise of politics’ are not counterposed. The autonomy is the autonomy of the experience, not of the work of art. To put it differently, the artwork participates in the sensorium of autonomy inasmuch as it is not a work of art.

Now this ‘not being a work of art’ immediately takes on a new meaning. The free appearance of the statue is the appearance of what has not been aimed at as art. This means that it is the appearance of a form of life in which art is not art. The ‘self-containment’ of the Greek statue turns out to be the ‘self-sufficiency’ of a collective life that does not rend itself into separate spheres of activities, of a community where art and life, art and politics, life and politics are not severed one from another. Such is supposed to have been the Greek people whose autonomy of life is expressed in the self-containment of the statue. The accuracy or otherwise of that vision of ancient Greece is not at issue here. What is at stake is the shift in the idea of autonomy, as it is linked to that of heteronomy. At first autonomy was tied to the ‘unavailability’ of the object of aesthetic experience. Then it turns out to be the autonomy of a life in which art has no separate existence—in which its productions are in fact self-expressions of life. ‘Free appearance’, as the encounter of a heterogeneity, is no more. It ceases to be a suspension of the oppositions of form and matter, of activity and passivity, and becomes the product of a human mind which seeks to transform the surface of sensory appearances into a new sensorium that is the mirror of its own activity. The last letters of Schiller unfold this plot, as primitive man gradually learns to cast an aesthetic gaze on his arms and tools or on his own body, to separate the pleasure of appearance from the functionality of objects. Aesthetic play thus becomes a work of aestheticization. The plot of a ‘free play’, suspending the power of active form over passive matter and promising a still unheard-of state of equality, becomes another plot, in which form subjugates matter, and the self-education of mankind is its emancipation from materiality, as it transforms the world into its own sensorium.