The Aesthetic

My friend Nick Gaskill and I have embarked on a plan to read about the aesthetic—and talk about what we are reading over the ubiquitous Zoom.  Nick is interested in “aesthetic education,” partly because his fabulous book Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) uncovered the (at least to me) surprising fact that American schools at the turn of the 20th century developed specific pedagogies to teach pupils the different colors and their relation to one another.

But this interest is also partly fueled by a return to the aesthetic in recent work—work that Nick has been pushing me to read.  In their own ways, Rita Felski’s anti-critique campaign, Caroline Levine’s book on “form,” the Joseph North history of criticism, Michael Clune’s work on judgment, Fred Moten’s development of his notion of the “undercommons,” and Saidiya Hartman’s interest in “beautiful experiments” all try to mobilize the aesthetic as a site of resistance to the dominant order.

Déja vu all over again.  The 30s and the 80s were all about, as Walter Benjamin put it, making aesthetics political. [In other words, right wing triumphs in the political realm seem to inevitably generate attempts to use art against the regime.] In Benjamin’s case, that project was poised against the ways that fascism “aestheticized politics.”  For Nick (inspired partly by Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories), there is not just the aesthetized politics of Trump (can’t take our eyes off the spectacle he offers daily), but also the meretricious everyday aestheticism of consumer capitalism.  All dressed up and ready to spend.

Can some other (truer? proper? more tasteful?) version of the aesthetic combat its trivialization in our culture?  I have had very little to say about the aesthetic over my long career—and pretty much abandoned literary criticism as soon as I got tenure in 1987.  I read novels voraciously, and taught literature all the time, but I lost (if I ever had) any ability to do the kinds of things critics do, especially fancy formal readings.  I became (probably always was) a “naïve” reader of texts—interested in meaning, content.  I have very little avant-garde sensibility when it comes to art: I like novels with plots and characters.  My taste does run to the abstract in painting, but that’s because I love vivid color, while I find the chaotic incoherence of much surrealism distinctly unappealing.  Pop usually strikes me as cheap, cynical tricks, although I like Roy Lichtenstein.  But give me Diebenkorn over Warhol any day.

More theoretically, I have had two problems with the aesthetic.  The first is how to even define it.  I knew someone who was into vintage cars.  His appreciation for them seemed as fully aesthetic as mine for abstract painting.  And some of those cars seemed worthy of (in fact were) being placed in museums.  Yet it seemed absurd to do somersaults to show how his fascination with cars was political in any way.  And I was similarly (in almost all cases) unimpressed by efforts to show me that Mondrian or Matisse was somehow political.

Instead, it seemed to me that lovers of painting and novels (for some reason) were just more prone to feel guilty about their love than those who fancied antique cars.  That guilt generated their need to justify their love by painting it up as radical, as a blow for the revolution etc.  That two things—a commitment to leftist causes and a love of novels—happened to co-exist in the same person in no way demonstrated that one was related (causally and necessarily) to the other.  No one tries to connect my being addicted to running as exercise to my political convictions.

Worse still, in my view, was that the attempts to tie the aesthetic to politics led to gestural politics.  Proving that a close reading of Moby Dick was political left you off the hook.  You got to spout all kinds of rousing slogans—and didn’t have to do any of the work of political organizing and political action.  “Get real,” I always found myself saying.  Another reading of Moby Dick is not going to change the world.  It is bad faith to pretend otherwise.  And there seemed no lack of bad faith in the various art worlds out there.  Parading one’s virtue stood in for rolling up one’s sleeves and actually going to work.

In fact, it seemed most artists and academics (of the literary variety) were allergic to collective, collaborative work, with all its messy compromises and inefficiencies.  They were loners, pursuing their own visions in splendid isolation before presenting the finished product to the world—and feeling hurt when the world did not respond with astonished applause.  The world also did not transform itself to correspond with the artist or author’s vision.

My skepticism duly registered, the point of this collaboration with Nick is (for me; I trust there will be a pay-off for him as well, but it will be a different one) to challenge these long-held prejudices of mine.  There are (immediately) two reasons for me to reconsider.

One, if I have been converted by recent events to the William James view that sensibility, not reason, is the more important factor in our adopting values and commitments, then art does seem to address sensibility more directly and effectively than other modes of discourse.  If the aim is to shape or transform sensibility, then attention to artistic modes seems imperative.  (In my 2002 book Democracy’s Children, I argue the opposite.  Basically, I wrote that since I believe my commitments have a good rational basis, it is condescending of me to assume that others’ commitments are a-rational in a way mine are not. I am still nervous about throwing reasons—offered in the public speech acts by which we try to persuade one another in a deliberative model of democracy—overboard.  But it is hard to retain any faith in deliberative democracy these days, when all sides seem so determined to not ever hear other sides, and refuse to give any credence to what others might say.)

Two, the focus on tying “education” to the “aesthetic” in the phrase “aesthetic education” shifts the playing field in the right direction (I think).  Now it is not the artist or critic’s performance that is political, but the shaping of sensibilities.  The question is not whether the art is political or has direct political effects.  The question becomes how (and why) it is useful to deploy art works as the means to developing certain sensibilities.

This pathway is fraught with many difficulties—and I warn you that, once again, a slew of posts is on the way.  But this educational project is one that makes sense to me in a way that claims for the political efficacy of “radical” readings of Moby Dick does not.

Nick and I started out by reading the first three chapters and the final one of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934).  So my next few posts will try to consider features of the aesthetic—and the hallmarks of aesthetic sensibility—as gleaned from Dewey’s text.

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