Joseph North Four—The Aesthetic

I thought I was only going to have three posts on the North book, but find I must add a fourth. (Warning: a fifth is now lined up.]

North, basically, accuses the baby boomers of abandoning the aesthetic when they moved over to historicist critique.  Just as he wants to reclaim a distinctive disciplinary status for literary studies, he wants to reclaim a distinctive identity for the aesthetic.  And he then wants to claim that establishing that separate category of “the aesthetic” has “radical” political consequences.  He makes two fuzzy steps along the way to this position.  The first is his continual claim that his aesthetics are “materialist” in a way that liberal aesthetics are not.  What he means by materialist is far from clear.  He certainly can’t (or certainly shouldn’t) mean that aesthetics are materially or economically determined—because if that is the case aesthetics would be hard-pressed to be radical.  They would just (in a vulgar Marxist determinism sense) serve the dominant class.  So he must mean something like: aesthetics are a manifestation of certain concrete practices that either stem from a collective aiming to resist the dominant economic order or aesthetics are instrumental in the formation of a resistant collective.

The second leap, of course, is the idea that aesthetics are inevitably “radical.”  This position, it seems to me, is akin to the leftist insistence (in some quarters) that if we had “true” democracy, a really fair expression of the people’s will, that will would turn out to be socialist.  In other words, there is a refusal to credit that the people might not desire socialism; that its will is accurately reflected in the current unsatisfactory (from the leftist point of view) state of affairs.  In this scenario, the left refuses to accept that it has rhetorically failed to make its case, and blames a corrupt democracy for its failure.

The parallel here is to think a “true” aesthetics must needs be radical.  But that is to assume a much more direct link between the aesthetic and the political than actually exists.  That link—if it is to exist—must be forged.  And it must be forged in a context where other links to other political positions is possible—as is the absence of any link at all (i.e. an apolitical art).  In short, no guarantees.  Everything must be produced—and produced in a field rife with competitors and obstacles.  No bridges without hard labor—and the bridges require constant defense against those who would dismantle them or turn them to other uses.

All that said, what I really want to do in this post (and it is going to require two posts) is consider the nature of the aesthetic.  Because I am one of those baby boomers who has found the category of the aesthetic so befuddling that I have found it easier to do without it.  I have never found it analytically useful to identify some phenomenon as “aesthetic” in some way that is denied to other phenomenon.  Yet I haunt art museums and read bushels of novels.  So perhaps I really need to come to terms with the aesthetic.

As should be clear from the previous posts, I cannot locate the distinctiveness of the aesthetic in a certain kind of object. Anything and everything is a possible object for “close reading,” I have argued.  Instead, I am inclined to evoke Wittgenstein’s notion of “seeing as.”  He writes: “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another.  I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently.  I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 193.)  He goes on (after giving us a figure that could be viewed in two different ways—not yet the famous duck/rabbit which comes on the next page): “we can also see the illustration now as one thing now as another. –So we interpret it, and see it as we interpret it”(p. 193).

This way of “saving” the aesthetic is familiar enough.  It is possible to see things “aesthetically.”  Traditionally, to see something aesthetically has usually been categorized as abstracting away from its uses or its consequences to focus solely on its appearance and its form.  Thus, the painter who thrills to the majestic vision of the building on fire without a thought to the people who are perishing within is seeing aesthetically.   The aesthetic in this sense has often been accused of a cold-blooded heartlessness, a kind of narcissistic monomania on the part of the artist, who abstracts away from ordinary human cares.

I am inclined—in this book about meaning that I keep claiming I am going to write—to say (instead) that seeing something “aesthetically” is to focus on its meaning.  The aesthetic, first of all, is a call to focus.  The aesthetic says: “pay particular attention to this thing, to this phenomenon” and let’s consider what it means.  The aesthetic enhances what it touches (makes it more significant, more worthy of attention) by augmenting its meaning.  If we take the time to pause over this thing, we will discover depths (I find myself pushed to use this word even though I hate the surface/depth metaphor) we did not previously suspect.  The artist makes us notice things we hadn’t seen before.  Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

God’s works—paint any one, and count it crime

To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works

Are here already; nature is complete:

Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can’t)

There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”

For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;

And so they are better, painted—better to us,

Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;

God uses us to help each other so,

Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,

Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,

And trust me but you should, though! How much more,

If I drew higher things with the same truth!

That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,

Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,

It makes me mad to see what men shall do

And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.


We, of course, hardly share Lippo’s faith that “it means good.”  But it is, I think, fair to say that aesthetics is committed to the insistence that “it means intensely.”  The aesthetic vision intensifies—or, as I said two posts back about close readings, that vision quickens.

Is that quickening radical?  I think that it, at least, provides another stance to assume.  Commercial culture is reductive and rushed.  Reductive in the sense that things are processed in terms of their equivalence, their exchange value.  Rushed in the sense that “getting and spending” is a frantic business.  We don’t dwell on things, and we don’t focus on their singularity, their difference from the other things on offer in the market.

Perhaps even more important is (going back to what I said about judgment in the previous post) the way the aesthetic calls us to contemplate alternatives.  A “creative” artist surprises us, projecting meanings and possibilities that had not previously occurred to us.  There is more here than I, at first, thought there was.  We could move on from here along an unexpected path.  To the forces of necessity, the stern taskmasters who assure us “there are no alternatives,” the aesthetic says, “not so fast.”  It refuses to tolerate the failures of imagination that offer “false necessities” in the stead of proliferated possibilities.  It helps us to “go on” (Wittgenstein’s phrase) otherwise.

Seeing aesthetically, then, I am saying consists in a) a call to attend closely to this thing or situation, b) an attempt to call forth—through an act of imaginative interpretation—“aspects” of that thing or situation hitherto unnoticed or neglected, and c) the projection of “an attitude” (now I am drawing on Kenneth Burke) toward the thing or situation in question.

Burke calls art “the dancing of an attitude” and every attitude “an incipient action.”  The artist is not indifferent to the meanings her work displays; the work stages an attitude, a stance, toward its subject matter—whether that be delight, indignation, curiosity, or a fascination with the technical difficulties of aesthetic representation itself.  And the work solicits a response from its audience.  It woos the spectator (to return to Arendt on Kant), inviting her to try on (at least for a time) that attitude as well.  And, thus, if Burke is right, to imagine the actions that would follow from adopting such an attitude in her own life.

Here we get to the crux of my position, the crucial crossroads where meaning passes over from import (what this situation conveys, the affordances and resistances it presents) to value (why I should care about and for this thing or situation).  The artist’s lack of indifference (the opposite: her passionate attachment!) is what she wishes to communicate, why she struggles to grab her audience’s attention.

That’s why “the aesthetic” as a category has no inherent politics.  It is the content of any particular artistic work, not the fact that it is art, that makes it “radical” or not.  Yes, I do think that art proposes an alternative form of valuation from that which prevails in the marketplace.  But that alternative need not be radical in any leftist sense.  There are, as I have argued in previous posts, worse things in the world than market societies.  And there have been artists passionately attached to those more terrible social orders.

Of more interest to me right now is this insistence that art involves values.  The art work makes a case about “what we should care about.”  It says: “here is significance, here is value.  Life will be enhanced by paying attention here, by caring for this matter, by pursuing the possible course of action suggested by these attitudes.”  A fuller, better life is what art seeks, what it (in its more confident moments) gestures toward, even (at its most manic) promises.  (I am, as always, influenced by my mentor, Charles Altieri, when dwelling on such issues.  For Altieri, the aesthetic approaches value through attention to “qualities.”  The meanings the aesthetic makes available are complex and non-reductive precisely because so attuned to the specific textures, emotions, and relations that constitute the “feel” [often hard to capture in any kind of direct statement or presentation] of an experience, a “feel” that potentially changes understandings of both self and world.)

I will end today by saying that aesthetic value is different from moral, economic, and political.  If, in a Nietzschean fashion, the aesthetic is in the service of a passionate, intense, fully lived life, then it (at best) may be tied to ethical value—where ethics is understood as concerned with the question of the “good life,” how best to solve the conundrum of how to live on this troubled planet.

I have already suggested how economic value is distinct from aesthetic value.  Political value (I would argue) concerns the creation and maintenance of a political community that manages to find a modus vivendi that serves needs well enough to prevent civil war. (Obviously, lots more needs to be said about this.)  The prime political values are freedom, justice, and security (peace); deny people freedom and they will take up arms; treat them unjustly enough and they will take up arms; fail to secure them the possibility of living their life and they will have no reason to accept the impositions of order.

Politics overlaps with morality, since I take morality to encompass the ways we organize our relations to others, both human and non-human.  Morality takes in relations that stand outside of politics per se, but most political questions (questions about how to arrange matters within the political community) are moral questions.

In sum, I have taken here the position that “the aesthetic” is the place where we attend to questions of value that pertain to the “meaning” of things, including the meaning of life.  That focus encompasses the questions of “what should I care about?”; “what possibilities does the life I have been given (into which I have been “thrown” as Heidegger puts it) afford me?”; and “how can I best live this life, to what should I attend; to what should I devote my energies; what should I strive to nourish, protect, and enable to flourish?”

All of this—and now I hate to tell you that I am not convinced this is an adequate account of the aesthetic.  It does two things I like: one, pushes the question of value front and center; and two, makes the aesthetic an attitude, or way of seeing, that refuses to locate it in a specific place, practice, institution, but disperses throughout all the sites of human life.

Which is not to say art should be anti- or a-institutional.  I have already argued that things we cherish sorely need institutions to sustain themselves, so I am all in favor of institutions that shelter the aesthetic attitude.  Similarly, I am not against identifying a range of practices that cultivate and enact the aesthetic attitude.  I am with North in believing that the aesthetic sensibility (and what have I been describing here except a sensibility?) needs to be cultivated; it is not “natural” any more that “trading and bartering” is natural.

But—I am not fully convinced I am on the right track here, so will try another version of “the aesthetic” in my next post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s