Category: aesthetics

What Can Poetry Do?

Here’s a review I wrote of a book on modernist art by Charles Altieri. Of interest because Altieri is a vigorous opponent of the notion that art can be directly political, even as he offers a distinctive vision of what art does have to offer us in the way of resources to reflect upon and act within the present moment. The review appears in symploke Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2 (2022) ISSN 1069-0697, pp. 335-341.

Review of Charles Altieri, Modernist Poetry and the Limitations of Materialist Theory: The Importance of Constructivist Values (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2021), viii + 280 pp. 

     What can modernist art offer the present?  Over the past thirty years, many readers have sought to mine that art for insights into the conditions of modernity and the forces that shape those conditions.  Art represents or reflects the society in which it is produced—and thus enhances our understanding of the world and (perhaps) offers alternatives to taken-for-granted prevailing modes of existence.  More recently, this brand of political materialism has morphed into a “new materialism” that purports to replace sociology with ontology.  The world is replete with active forces whose interaction produces  specific situations.  Capacious art works capture the constant flows and surprises of the dynamic scenes we all inhabit. 

     In both cases, critics look to the descriptive power of the arts to deliver insights into the world.  In his new book, Charles Altieri sees this “descriptive, epiphanic” mode as dominant within contemporary poetry specifically and in what literary studies generally looks to the arts to impart.  Altieri’s goal is to offer a strong alternative, one that depends on an allegiance to the non-representational work done by the modernist artists (Braque, Picasso, Malevich, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Ashbery, and Geoffrey O’Brien) he calls “constructivists.”   These artists explore how “objects and persons might be able to display the force of their presence, and they establish a range of subject positions for which finding the appropriate concepts was less important than imagining how a responding consciousness might cooperate in making those modes of presence emerge.  This imagining had to orient itself toward a questioning of who members of the audience might become by virtue of participating in what the making elaborates as possible distributions of subjectivity” (22).  It is what the arts can create, the possibilities that they can open up, rather than any report about the way things are that is important. 

     Not all artists are constructivists; it would be foolish to deny that many works of art do aspire to some version of realism, to tell us something about the world. (In what follows, then, take every statement about “art” to only apply to constructivist art.) But Altieri thinks we lose perhaps the most valuable and distinctive thing the arts can do if we neglect how the arts can exemplify and celebrate the creative powers of the imagination.  In addition, the arts display the various subtle ways that self-consciousness registers its encounter with the world and its experience of its own capacities.  Political materialism, he believes, is mired in an inescapable ironic dissociation from a world identified as cruel and unjust, thus missing the affirmations that art can offer.  Here is Altieri at his most exalted and most inspiring: “Poetry as a theory of life involves demonstrations that the imagination is not an evasion of the real but a way of complementing it by aligning it with our most intimate structures of desire.  Such demonstration has to replace interpretation by celebration, or, more accurately, by the performance of celebration that aligns our capacities for affirmation to the world of fact” (150).  Against the world-weariness and despair generated by our political obsessions, Altieri wants to offer the triumphs of art’s engagement with its materials and its successes in constructing those materials into works that astound and delight us even as they invite us to join in the creative process. 

     The new materialism, with its focus on activity, might seem more aligned with Altieri’s constructivists.  Certainly, in the current debates about “critique,” writers like Bruno Latour and Rita Felski mobilize the new materialism to distance themselves from the kinds of political criticism that Altieri also wants to decenter from prevailing critical modes.  But Altieri argues that the new materialism is reductive.  It simply has no vocabulary or theoretical armature to handle the intricacies of consciousness and self-consciousness.  No third person scientific account can capture “the phenomenal awareness of what it is like to be in a given state” (231); “what is known [on the basis of that phenomenal awareness] cannot be reduced to the result of a cognitive judgment” (233).  We enter deep waters here—and I will only cite Altieri’s allegiances rather than detail the arguments he advances for them.  He is committed to the view that the arts can deliver experiences that are not well understood if we try to assimilate our “take away” from such experiences to models or modes of cognition.  And he is committed to a base level humanism: we cannot do justice to human experience if we do not attend to “how the mind can structure what it confronts” (230) and how consciousness can experience phenomenally the emotions and pleasures that its structuring exercise generates.  Furthermore, the artist can then develop modes of expression that display that structuring activity, modes that invite an audience to participate in that structuring, and that call self-conscious attention to the emotions, pleasures, and difficulties that accompany that activity.  These human expressive and conscious capacities are not shared by creatures or objects that do not produce art works.  Any materialism that does not take into account what art displays about these capacities fails the test of inclusiveness.  There is a vital part of human phenomenal experience that such materialisms miss. 

     Wisely, Altieri devotes himself almost exclusively to elaborating his alternative instead of getting mired down in polemics against materialism. (The polemics are offered only in the Introduction and the Epilogue.)  What the reader mostly gets is a bracing and thrilling articulation of an aestheticism that aims “to model the force of self-conscious affirmation” (154).  Where many contemporary readers turn to the arts for a denunciation of modernity and all its works, Altieri looks to the arts to mobilize powers of imagination that simultaneously celebrate human capacities and “enable us to participate in establishing a full sense of the real” (155).  The encounter of selves with “the necessities of living” (154) is the scene for a poiesis that activates emotions and apprehensions that the artist composes self-consciously into a relationship to the non-self (the real and others).  “[T]he imagination becomes simply a means of attending to possibilities inherent in observation and dwelling on them as opportunities for adjusting one’s sense of an inner life” (155).  Through this second-order artistic exploration of the meeting of self and non-self, both are articulated, are intensified, come into focus.   

     Crucially, for Altieri, this exploration is dynamic and open-ended, manifested as a process not a product in the modernist works he cherishes.  In displaying this process, the work invites the reader/audience to participate in it.  The work does not deliver a message; it explains nothing.  Rather, it displays or exemplifies modes of relating selves to otherness (of all kinds)—and offers the satisfactions of what those modes enable in the way of felt emotions and/or the pleasures of activating, putting into practice, our imaginative powers.  “Construction must elaborate fields of relation that can align imaginative labor with what would be without it utter poverty” (166).  Art vivifies the world and the human in that world, thus providing the grounds for affirming the world and our habitation in it.  Constructivist artists highlight “the satisfactions of a freedom of mind seeking to play a fuller part in how the world emerges” (167). 

     If all this sounds vaguely (or even precisely) Hegelian, that’s because it is.  Altieri clearly believes that the non-human only comes to realization through the apprehensions of consciousness.  His explicit invocation of Hegel comes in a somewhat different register.  The modernist artists he calls “constructivist” “dramatized the power to make meaning” by foregrounding “’the powers that do the forming’ rather than ‘the final forms themselves’”(74; the quoted passages are from Paul Klee). “And these modes of significance depend in turn largely on how the work invites self-conscious identification with the force of that making” (74).   

     Altieri mobilizes Hegel’s concept of “inner sensuousness” (from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Arts) to capture this focus on the mind’s activity of composing the work.  What constructivist artists do is try to make concrete, try to embody in apprehensible forms and images, the invisible work of mind, of imagination, of self-consciousness. Such art makes “the process of reflection both the subject and sensuous object that we produce as readers” (205). We might want to think of “objective correlatives” here, but that would miss just how “sensuous” Altieri finds the exercise of mental capacities and the emotions that such exercise unleashes.  Inner sensuousness is achieved by a work when that work “so embodies the activities of the maker that the making itself takes on a concrete objecthood available to all those willing to participate in how the work organizes its energies” (44). The great pleasure and great triumph of Altieri’s book comes in his intricate and thrilling readings of selected paintings and poems, his way of tracking the artist’s way of organizing energy and the ways in which the artist invites us to participate in that work of organization.  What those readings invariably impart is the full glory of stretching oneself to the limits of one’s abilities.  The poverty of a life in which one doesn’t participate in the making of meanings and the elaboration of possibilities shadows the exuberance of the play in which artists engage. 

     In his eleven previous books, most of them focused on twentieth-century poetry, Altieri has amply demonstrated his ability to illuminate even the most difficult material.  Stevens might be called Altieri’s lodestar, bringing out his best, while surely no commentator makes a better case for Ashbery’s claim on our attention.  In his current book, to accompany Altieri as he reads Moore’s “A Grave” is to follow a master in slow motion so as to savor every move.  The characteristic Altieri reading identifies what the poet is striving to attain, and then explains the poem’s twists and turns in relation to the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve the desired end.  Of course, not all poems get what they want, but their dynamism, their energy, the logic of their unfolding rests in their striving, and readers best enter into the poem when they follow the path of those efforts while identifying (if only provisionally) with its aims.  When he turns to Eliot, Altieri eloquently shows how Eliot’s religious poetry aims to make “Christian principles visible as concrete states of self-consciousness, despite the domination of secular attitudes toward what constitutes experience” (116).  The “post conversion poetry and plays” foreground “the capacities of self-consciousness to establish relational fields responsive to something other than any natural order shaping the contours of experience” (117).  Hence Eliot partakes in the more general dilemma of the limits of a stringent naturalism.  Nature gives us hurricanes and cancer, so it cannot itself serve as a standard for what one values and what is good.  But developing other grounds for judgment is not easy and, under modern conditions, does not yield any stable foundations.  The poet must work his way to his values laboriously and tentatively—and the reader is invited along on the journey.  Altieri’s chapter on Eliot made at least this reader more open to the strivings of the portentous Four Quartets than ever before.  

     The “high modernists” (Frank Kermode’s term) Altieri finds inspiring have not had a good run lately.  They are accused of a multitude of sins, some of which they actually committed, and attention has shifted to less canonical figures or to readings that don’t take the high modernists on their own terms.  And Altieri’s brand of aestheticism can look both all too familiar and depressingly inadequate when posed against the challenges of our bleak time.  His insistence that art should eschew “practical understanding” can look like Auden’s defiant insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen”—a position that can seem to doom art to ineffectual irrelevance.  Certainly, many modernist artists and (arguably) most contemporary literary critics are trying to secure art’s practical significance, not its non-practicality.  Altieri insists that “we submit to practical understanding only at a substantial cost” (11).  We lose art’s ability to “disrupt” the “smooth flow from particular to concept to action” (11).  An art that doesn’t aspire to “guide action” is always throwing sand in the gears, endeavoring to get us to attend to what in the situation might not “fit our conceptual schemes” while also inviting self-conscious attention (and possible revision) of “guiding attitudes and investments” (11).  Art of the kind Altieri favors makes us pause, makes us re-think and re-evaluate and reconsider our received opinions and feelings.  Art’s distance from the practical can make what seems “poverty . . . become a virtue if the poets produce modes of attention to how language might fuse with experience to provide momentary senses of liberation from our fate as social beings” (181).  We can wriggle out from under—if only momentarily—the weight of received meanings and attitudes. 

     Hardly a satisfactory formulation of art’s political impact if you say you want a revolution.  I think Altieri’s book strongly implies, without ever explicitly stating, that asking art to be directly politically effective is to court inevitable disappointment.  Contemporary literary studies wants the wrong thing from art—and thus misses the wonderful, precious things art can deliver. But there are moments when Altieri hopes for something more from art than momentary liberation. In stressing the way that the works he discusses invite “participation,” Altieri reprises another familiar modernist concept that can be traced back to Eliot: “impersonality.”  Despite their concentrated attention to the self’s (to a particular mind’s) encounter with the world, Stevens, Eliot and the others he discusses, in Altieri’s view, reach for articulations that cross the boundary between self and other.  They do so by “treating the work as involving participation in the activity of the maker” (17).   

     “Impersonality” limns a desirable politics in two ways.  First, the imperative of impersonality is embedded in any artist’s need to use forms and materials (words, color, canvas, poetic forms etc.) that pre-exist her and are socially (i.e. non-individualistically) possessed.  The purely private can make no claim on an audience’s attention—and certainly will have great difficulty in inviting that audience’s participation.  It seems fair to say that all the modernists Altieri celebrates were “devoted to displaying how the private in fact can become a public force” (96). Thus, Marianne Moore’s use of quotations in her poems offers “a striking emblem of sociality, since the world experienced is a world held self-reflectively in common with numerous other commentators” (99). 

     The second point is related to what we might call the problem of “uptake.”  If the poet activates meanings that depart from practical and received understandings, will those alternative meanings be picked up by readers? Once taken up by others, those meanings are no longer personal or idiosyncratic.  Because he emphasizes so strongly the co-production of meaning by writer and reader, Altieri builds in a model of how the arts might create new social relations.  Altieri touches very, very lightly on this possibility, as if nervous of making too extravagant a claim about art’s powers at a time when we commonly ask the arts to do too much.  His modest account of how poetry might be political comes through his discussion of Geoffrey O’Brien’s method and aspirations.  O’Brien writes of an “’immaterial commons’ in which ‘we read not of things but of dispositions toward the thingly.’”  Altieri comments: O’Brien “sees himself facing two antagonists—a capitalist social system that wants to repress the effects of inequality by treating injustice as written into something like historical necessity, and an engaged poetry that makes promises of political effectiveness it cannot sustain.  Poetry might be able in the long run indirectly to influence social change because we can find in that commons the sense that our cares and responses to those cares have a great deal that is shared.  And we find in this space the possibility of celebrating one another’s freedom because these freedoms are grounded in this group awareness” (210). 

     Poetry, then, can contribute to the creation of a commons, to the establishment of a magnanimous sociality, only by being impersonal and intersubjective—not the word handed down by the poet, but in the words co-created by poet and reader in a process of coming to meaning.  It is not what the poet tells us (hence Altieri’s resistance to seeing art as representative and to approaches that emphasize art’s cognitive benefits for understanding the world), but the activities to which the poet invites us.   

     Put that way, Altieri’s vision seems anything but modest, even if it is not directly or particularly political.  He is at one with the most exalted modernist aspirations to re-word the world even as their work would re-establish basic social relations on an entirely new basis.  This project lies somewhat buried in Altieri’s book because he slides from “meaning” to “value” occasionally, but never takes up their relation explicitly.  I think, however, that basically he believes that what we find meaningful, what we deem worthy of attention and appreciation, is what we affirm as valuable.  The invitation that the modernist poets offer us, in his view, is the opportunity to self-consciously consider our values and the processes (pleasurable in themselves) by which we create those values.  And the hope is that participating together in those processes will lead us to recognize what we hold in common and to cherish/promote the goods required to make participation available to all.  We don’t need artists to tell us the world is unjust.  We have ample evidence of that fact all around us.  We need artists to introduce us to the joys of exercising our imaginative capacities and, through that exercise, to discover our deep connections to, and care for, others with similar capacities. 

Teaching the Art of Judgment

Here’s the text of a short essay of mine published in the most recent issue of PMLA. (My apologies for some of the funky formatting.)

As a teacher, I have no right to tell my students how to vote or what
religion to practice. I don’t see that telling them to prefer Mrs.
Dalloway to The Da Vinci Code is any different. My job is to enhance
my students’ abilities to judge, not present authoritative judgments to
them.(1) Any student, even one in kindergarten, has already developed
preferences, even if the reasons for those preferences are mostly
inchoate. Articulating those reasons—submitting them to scrutiny
through public conversation—should be one aim of aesthetic educa-
tion. In this essay, I consider what teaching the art of judgment
entails. Working from and through the example of an aesthetic object
is particularly effective in leading students to understand the processes
of judgment formation and to consider the bases of their own

Traditionally, judgment names the ability to recognize the full
nature and import of something encountered in experience. Thus,
the teacher is aiming to enhance powers of apprehension. But appre-
hension bleeds inevitably into selection. One chooses to spend time
with this object, experience, or person, not that one. Criticism, the
articulated response to the encounter with an aesthetic object, is
often thought to invariably involve a judgment about whether that
object is any good. Statements like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is better
than Moby-Dick” litter works of aesthetic theory from David Hume
on despite being just about meaningless absent the specification of
criteria. Particular qualities, contexts of use, and purposes must
underwrite any judgments of worth—and those criteria simply are
assumed to be held in common with others when blanket statements
of value are offered. That readers in 1856 would have preferred
Stowe’s novel to Melville’s, while “settled opinion” by 1956 gave the
palm to Moby-Dick, tells us about revaluations of sentimentalism,
of direct versus indirect political rhetorics, and of melodrama, not about something eternally true.

So it is not a question of reaching the right judgments of value, but
of understanding what underwrites particular judgments of value.

Crucial to any evaluation of an object is the ability to discern its features and its relation to me and
others who encounter it. Just what is this thing and how does it move its potential audiences? Judgment
thus names both the power of discernment, the capacity to apprehend the thing in all its multitudi-
nous variety and complexity, and a similar capacity to discern the complexities of my responses to it—
and the responses of others. Following Hannah Arendt’s reading of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of
Judgment, I want to emphasize this last bit (hearing and understanding the responses of others)—and
take it as the foundation stone for aesthetic education.

Like Kant, Arendt distinguishes between determinative and reflexive judgments. Determinative
judgments are noncontroversial and simply involve determining the category to which something
belongs. Speakers of the same language rarely dispute whether something is a chair or a sofa.
Judging whether this thing I sit on is one or the other is obvious. Reflexive judgments, however,
are disputable. What a chair indicates about the personality of its owner is not immediately apparent—
and will generate varying judgments. A case will have to be made to my interlocutors about the
owner’s love of luxury or, alternatively, the owner’s austere puritanism. Even more dramatically, my
encounter with the chair and my articulation of its relation to personality may lead to my re-forming
my understanding of the very category of personality and its entanglements with objects. Kant’s pri-
mary example of a category that can be re-formed in this way is “beauty.” One might argue that a pain-
ter like Vincent van Gogh transformed the category of “beauty” in Western art.

That Van Gogh did not live to see that transformation indicates the crucial fact that categories
are communal and intersubjective, not personal. Only in the dialogue with others do judgments
acquire any stability. This fact underwrites Arendt’s distinctive understanding of “the world.” Judgment involves an assertion of what a thing is, of what it can be seen as, but also what its singular character-
istics are. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby-Dick are both novels that revise our sense of what novels
can be and do. They are also distinctive individual works that call for detailed descriptions of their sin-
gularity. Judgment is much less about seeing one as “better” than the other than about understanding
each novel’s peculiar characteristics and virtues—and the distinctive ways they have moved some
readers and failed to interest other readers at all.

Such categorizations and characterizations become significant, constituting a world of things
and situations that transcends the self, only when ratified in conversation with others. We constitute
a world that becomes our “common sense” (Kant’s sensus communis).

Arendt writes:

[N]o one can adequately grasp the objective world in
its full reality all on his own, because the world
always shows and reveals itself to him from only
one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint
in the world and is determined by it. If someone
wants to see and experience the world as it “really”
is, he can do so only by understanding it as some-
thing that is shared by many people, lies between
them, separates and links them, showing itself differ-
ently to each and comprehensible only to the extent
that many people can talk about it and exchange
their opinions and perspectives with one another,
over against one another. Only in the freedom of
our speaking with one another does the world, as
that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity
and visibility from all sides. Living in a real world
and speaking with one another about it are basically
one and the same. . . . (“Introduction” 128–29).

It is only through talk with others that anyone can achieve the “enlarged” or “broadened” viewpoint
that Kant recommends in his discussion of “sensus communis”: “a power to judge that in reflecting
takes account in our thought of everyone else’s way of presenting” something (442). Judgment,
Arendt insists, is social through and through. “One judges always as a member of a community”
(Lectures 75), and the practice of judgment estab-
lishes the “sociality” that Kant calls humanity’s “highest end” (73). The key Kantian concept here is
“communicability”: “Communicability obviously depends on the enlarged mentality; one can com-
municate only if one is able to think from the other person’s standpoint; otherwise one will
never meet him, never speak in such a way that he understands” (74). Sensus communis, our living in
a world of shared objects, is constituted through communication.

Aesthetic objects offer an almost perfect laboratory for experimenting with communicating one’s
opinions and discernments with others who aredoing the same. Sociological phenomena, historical
events, and philosophical arguments can also serve to develop powers of judgment through practice.
The advantage of using the aesthetic object as an example to teach judgment is its materiality (it can
be physically present to all participants in the dialogue) and its relative boundedness compared with
other possible examined objects. Most importantly, the aesthetic object (almost invariably) is itself a
communicative act. It is already trying to get its audience to see things in a certain way, to direct
the audience’s attention in a particular direction. Thus, students all have their eyes turned toward an
object that confronts each of them—and that is directly aiming to elicit a response from them. The
students can be immediately set the task of describing what this thing is—and learn together just how
differently an object can be viewed and just how detailed a comprehensive description (of an object
and of responses to it) can be. In this way, the encounter with aesthetic objects dramatizes the whole
process of judgment. Students have a particular response (intense or not) to an object—and then
test that response in dialogue with others’ responses to the same object. Examples get the whole operation
moving; they are, Arendt translates Kant as saying, “the go-carts of judgment” (Lectures 84).

The teacher, familiar with the history of responses to particular works and knowledgeable
about the kinds of questions that get asked about aesthetic objects, guides the dialogue, pushing stu-
dents to become more aware of and more articulate about their somewhat inchoate responses. Students
are being led on the “taste journeys” that MarkWollaeger describes as part of his classroom

The student is called upon “‘to give an account’—not to prove, but to be able to say how
one came to an opinion and for what reasons one formed it” (Arendt, Lectures 41). In this give-and-
take of asking for responses and reasons or grounds for those responses, one cannot compel agreement.
As Arendt puts it, “one can only ‘woo’ or ‘court’ the agreement” of others (72). Reciprocally, others’
comments may lead one to see aspects of the object or experience that had been missed. Superb critics
light up something, make us apprehend it in new ways that feel enlarging, enriching, and enlighten-
ing. The world emerges, moves from black and white into color, through these dialogic exchanges.

Arendt’s link between the dialogic practices of judgment and a robust democratic polity has been
most full explored by Linda M. G. Zerilli. She presents judging “as a democratic world-building prac-
tice that creates and sustains . . . the common space in which shared objects of judgment can appear in
the first place” (xiii). Following Arendt, Zerilli adopts a language of “loss” to describe our contem-
porary predicament. We are witnessing “the radical shrinkage of a public space in which various per-
spectives can attest to the existence of a common object” (36). I subscribe to the notion that the
dialogic classroom provides a model for the kinds of exchanges essential for a vibrant democracy. But
our current inability to create a common world—exemplified by the drastically different perspectives
on the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 US presidential election—seems less the result of a shrunken public sphere than the consequence of more voices being included. It is easy to have a common world
emerge when all the communicants are mostly cut from the same cloth.

It would be naive to believe that developing powers of judgment through dialogue could close
the rifts in a deeply divided society. The question of how much members of a society must agree on
to avoid civil war has an empirical answer. But a peaceful transition of power (to take just one
charged example) relies on some consensus about the legitimacy of the rules of the game. Zerilli is, I

think, right when she says that “to bring someone to share my judgment . . . must be a matter of getting
the person to see what I see, to share, that is, my affective response” (54). Arendt’s gambit is that par-
ticipation in processes of judgment will foster a particular sensibility—one that recognizes that I live
with others and that both my individuality and the world itself emerge and flourish through association
and communication with those others. Absent that sensibility, democracy is in peril. Linking aesthetic
education to democracy means hoping that the practice of judgments fosters such a sensibility.
Hope comes with no guarantees, but the absence of dialogic habits spells trouble.

The dialogic classroom stands as an example of a democratic way of being in the world, and the aes-
thetic object provides an occasion for practicing judgment. It is worth considering why working
through examples is a useful way to teach the art of judgment.

First, examples avoid the abstraction and generality of giving reasons for judgment. The example
gets us into the territory of affective response, of detailed engagement with the object. It is fairly com-
mon to link the aesthetic to the particular; aesthetic objects (at least since 1750 in the West, an important
qualification) aspire to originality, to uniqueness. To discern the features of an aesthetic object—and
the qualities of my response to it—means paying attention to the fine-grained details of this experi-
ence in all its dimensions. When my experience of the object shifts because of hearing others’ responses
to it or under the pressure of articulating my own responses, the holism that a word like sensibility
evokes comes into play. How the object “moves” me is the question, not simply how to describe its
defining features. It is that holism that advocates of aesthetic education often think justifies its place
in the curriculum.

The second reason to resort to examples leads to difficult issues about the relation of autonomy to
sociality in democratic polities. The route to one’s formed sensibility (of course never fully formed,
but still more solidly established and resistant to change at thirty than at sixteen) is, as Arendt’s
account of judgment would suggest, through one’s relation to others. Humans are imitative creatures.
Especially at first, we adopt the attitudes, tastes, habits, and beliefs of those we admire, of those
who seem to be the beings we would like to be ourselves. Other humans stand as examples to us of
ways of being in the world. The teacher (or peers) probably influences us more by the persona they
project than by any reasons offered up in dialogue. I came (at least at first) to love classical music less
through its intrinsic qualities and virtues than because certain people I admired clearly thought
there was something to it. Reasons are not utterly negligible, but we risk missing the full dynamic of
judgments of taste if we neglect questions of charisma, of admiration, of a desire to be more like
someone else. Perhaps judgment is clouded when influenced by others one admires, but any account
of judgment is deficient if it doesn’t take such influences into account.

In the classroom, I think it prudent to make the effects of charisma explicit—not to purge them (an
impossible task) but to highlight the extent to which one’s judgments entail attachments to certain ways of
being in the world. Judgments are invariably about value; discernment involves assessments of whether
this object, person, desire, ambition is worthy of sustained attention or is to be left aside in favor of
other pursuits. The teacher’s job is to give students the capacity to make such judgments by opening
up the terrain on which judgments are made—and providing as detailed a map of that territory as

Respecting and attempting to foster my students’ autonomy seem to me absolute responsibili-
ties. Democracy rests on the assertion that each person has the right to make judgments on their
own. The tricky part is to fully acknowledge (as I have been arguing) that judgment requires partici-
pation in a community, where reasons are offered, opinions expressed, and ways of being in the world
(living out one’s beliefs and tastes and moral sensibility) displayed. But one’s judgments are not to be
dictated by authoritative leaders or some kind of majority rule. Arendt’s entire attempt to work out
an account of judgment was a response to her experience of totalitarian society. Arendt had witnessed

a world in which a set of shared moral convictions about murder and decency “collapsed almost over-
night, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original sense of the word, as
a set of mores, customs, and manners, which might be exchanged for another set with hardly more trou-
ble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people” (“Some Questions” 50).
The process of forming a judgment cannot become simply an adoption of prevailing beliefs or preju-
dices, or parroting the views of others. It should aim instead to establish one’s own convictions,
one’s own way of living in the world.

But autonomy, Arendt always insists, must be tempered with the recognition that I live in a world
also occupied by others. To learn that I am not alone in the world is an important lesson, absolutely nec-
essary, and as such underwrites the requirements to take the viewpoints of others into consideration
when forming my own convictions. And the ethics of sociality require communicability, of explaining
myself to myself and to others. There remain, however, duties to the self, ones Arendt saw dissolve in
front of her eyes in the 1930s. Balancing these two sets of responsibilities is no easy task, with no set
formulas or methods for success. But continual engagement in dialogue with others seems essential
to any effort to cultivate both. Democratic education (and this essay tries to enlist aesthetic education to
that cause) fosters the realization that individual style and opinions develop in association with oth-
ers, not in opposition to them. This does not take the sting out of various disagreements, but it does
provide a basic acknowledgment not only that others have an equal right to be here but that there is
no world and no self unless those others are here. We might call this “the democratic demand,” the
ethical imperative embedded in efforts to teach the art of judgment.

The example stands as a singular instance even as it also indicates possible ways forward, offering an
instantiation of certain choices guided by judgment.(2) As such it bridges singularity and sociality.
Kant’s comments on the use of examples in teaching capture the tricky balancing act in question. In the
arts (as contrasted to the sciences), what we want the student to learn “cannot be couched in a formula
and serve as a precept. . . . Rather, the rule must be abstracted from what the artist has done, i.e. from
the product, which others may use to test their own talent, letting it serve them as their model,
not to be copied but to be imitated. How that is possible is difficult to explain” (177). No kidding. That’s
why aesthetic educators are always on the defensivein a world determined to devise pedagogical
methods and measures. In the biology lab, you want students to produce exactly the same results.
In the literature classroom, you want students to produce their own distinctive responses to the works
they read, not to find their way to exactly the same conclusions. Aesthetic educators are not offering
recipes that result in a standardized product, but are (instead) trying to activate the distinctive talents
and sensibilities of each of their students. Seeing how others have done it provides a model, an
example. But imitating the model (to use Kant’s distinction between copying and imitating) entails
grasping the point of the enterprise (an engagement with the materials and situation at hand and a will to
communicate the particulars of that engagement to others) and attempting a similar enterprise on one’s
own behalf.

I think Kant’s emphasis on “abstracting a rule” from the example is misguided, but it highlights the
tensions at play. Not anything goes. “Since nonsense too can be original, the products of genius must also
be models, i.e. they must be exemplary” (175). The example communicates; it is not utterly trapped
in idiosyncratic, ineffable singularity, but speaks to others, displays a sensibility and its encounter with
the nonself. The aesthetic educator is trying to foster some kind of individual autonomy through
the examination of individual responses to what the world offers, responses tested against the ability
to communicate them. Autonomy and sociality develop as I see how others respond to my views
and also how those others respond to encounters with similar (or even identical) objects or situations.

Aesthetic education, in particular, seems suited to this effort to help students come into their own, to
discover their own voices and convictions, while remaining in touch with others. The means are the

public (through dialogue) testing of attitudes and beliefs. The thoroughness and persuasiveness with
which students communicate their views are the criteria of assessment—and what the teacher sets out to
cultivate—not specific content. Examples can give a sense of what can be accomplished in communication,
in a thorough and spirited presentation to others.

1. See Clune for a spirited argument that “expert aesthetic judg-
ment” (2) deployed in the classroom can “carve out a space beyond
the reach of market valuation” (3) in such a way that “aesthetic edu-
cation sets up a material barrier to market totalitarianism” (4). My
account of judgment in this essay both overlaps and disagrees with
Clune’s work in ways too complex to detail in this short space.

2. See Klinger for a detailed account of how judgment works in
the production of the individual instance.


Arendt, Hannah. “Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of
Politics, edited by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2005, pp.

———. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. U of Chicago P,
———. “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.” Responsibility and
Judgment, edited by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2003, pp.

Clune, Michael W. A Defense of Judgment. U of Chicago P, 2021.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by by Werner
S. Pluhar, Hackett, 1987.

Klinger, Florian. “To Make That Judgment: The Pragmatism of
Gerhard Richter.” Judgment and Action: Fragments toward a
History, edited by Vivasvan Soni and Thomas Pfau,
Northwestern UP, 2018, pp. 239–68.

Wollaeger, Mark. “Taste, Value, and Literary Aesthetics.”American Comparative Literature Association conference,

Zerilli, Linda M. G. A Democratic Theory of Judgment. U of Chicago P. 2016.


It is hard, but not impossible, to disentangle the aesthetic from the meaningful.  Clearly, aestheticism tries to drive a hard boundary between what is aesthetic and what conveys meaning.  But since the aesthetic always entails a relationship between a perceiver and the thing perceived, it seems “natural” (i.e. to occur almost automatically and seemingly of its own accord, unwilled) to ascribe some significance to that relationship.  When the thing perceived it itself “natural” (i.e. not human made, but—for example—a mountain landscape), we get the kinds of “oceanic” sensations of harmony or of the self melting into the non-self that are associated with romanticism.  When the thing perceived is human made, an artifact, it is difficult not to view it as an act of communication.  This thing is offered or presented by one human to another—and we presume that the offering has some meaning, is thought of as being significant.

Meaning and significance are not exactly equivalent.  I can discern the meaning in a banal sentence, but deem it insignificant.  When the artist presents something to an audience, she (it would seem) is making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of significance.  This is worth paying attention to.

On what grounds can that claim to significance, importance, be made?  Either the artist claims to have something important to say, some message we need to hear.  Or the artist is offering a valuable experience.  Now that word “valuable” has snuck in.  “Meaning” and “significance” are synonyms when they refer to sense (i.e. what does that sentence mean; what does that sentence signify); but then both words move from reference to the sense something (a sentence, an event) makes to intimations of “worth,” of importance, of value.  Something is meaningful as opposed to trivial or meaningless; something is significant as contrasted to not worth paying any mind. 

The aesthetic, then, seems pretty inevitably engaged in pointing to something or some event as worthy of our attention—and then has to justify that pointing in terms of importance or significance or meaningfulness.  It seems a very short leap from that kind of justification to making claims about what does or should hold value for us as humans beings living a life.  It seems difficult to avoid some kind of hierarchizing here.  These activities or these insights are valuable; they contribute to leading a good or worthwhile life.  Those activities and beliefs are, at best, a waste of time, or, at worst, pernicious. 

Yes, certain modern artists (although far less of them than one might suppose) wanted to get out of the value game.  But it was awfully hard to present your art work in a “take it or leave it” way, utterly and truly indifferent as to whether anyone found it worthy of attention.  A sense of grievance, a denunciation of the philistines, is much more common when the artist fails to find an audience.  People have bad taste, have a misguided sense of what is valuable and should be valued. 

I suspect that even as the arts were trying in the early 20th century to escape meaningfulness, to simply offer experiences that were their own end and carried no message, that the humanities were going in the opposite direction.  The humanities are devoted to uncovering the meanings of cultural artifacts and events.  This is partly because the humanities are an academic pursuit—and thus tied to models of knowledge that were developed in reference to the “hard” sciences.  Just as science should explain to us natural events, the humanities should explain cultural ones.

But, as people (like Dilthey) quickly noted, scientific explanations were causal.  It was not very clear how the explanations offered by the humanities could (or even should) be causal.  You could say that, as a communicative act, the art work causes the audience to receive a certain meaning.  And certainly that kind of approach to the problem of meaning has figured fairly prominently in the philosophy of language and in certain forms of literary theory.  So, for example, the philosophers struggle mightily with metaphor and irony because it undermines any kind of direct mapping of semantic sense to conveyed meaning.  And then someone like Wayne Booth, a literary theorist, comes along and tries to provide a list of the textual markers that allow us to see when irony is being deployed.  Vague terms like “tone,” “implication,” and “connotation” are trotted out—and interpretation (even when given a jargony, snazzy name like “hermeneutics”) quickly begins to seem too seat of the pants, too ad hoc, to really qualify as science.

The alternative is to try to explain how and why “interpretation” is different from “explanation.”  For starters, interpretation is not trying to explain how this thing we are perceiving was produced.  (There are other branches of humanistic inquiry that do try to answer that question.)  Interpretation is trying to suss out the meaning conveyed to the perceiver.  The movement, we might say, is forward not backwards.  The interest is not in the causes of this artistic artifact or event, but in its effects. 

I don’t want to get into the tangles of trying to differentiate “explanation” from “interpretation.”  This is mostly from cowardice.  I do think there is a methodological distinction to be drawn between the sciences and the humanities, but I have not been able to draw that distinction in a way that is even minimally plausible or satisfactory.  So I have nothing ready for prime time on that topic.

Instead, I want to end this post with two observations.  The first is that the humanities, I think, are always pulling art works back into the realm of the meaningful even in cases where the artists themselves are determined to escape the nets of meaning.  In such cases, the humanities will often then give us the meaning of the attempt to escape meaning.  And it is worth adding here that history is one of the humanities when it considers the effects of events as opposed to trying to trace the causes of events.  That history is pulled both toward causes and to effects is why it is often considered one of the social sciences.   But, then again, it would be silly to say the natural sciences don’t, at times, pay attention to effects as well as causes.  And, as I have already said, some branches of literary criticism (although not very prominent) do attend to causes.  So the difference here can’t be grounded on whether causes or effects is the focus.  (This is a taste of the muddle I am in about these things.) 

Instead, perhaps the key difference is meaningfulness itself.  The natural scientist tracing causes and effects of a natural process does not have to assign that process meaningfulness apart from what transpires.  But the humanities, it seems to me, always consider the further question: how is this event or object meaningful for some group of humans?  The “uptake” by some human community is almost always part of the humanities’ account of that event/artifact; that community’s paying attention to and its ways of elaborating, playing out, its relationship to the event/artifact and to the humans involved in the making of that event/artifact, is a central concern for the humanities.

The second point need not be belabored since I have already made it above.  It seems to me only a short step (and one almost impossible not to make) from considering the meanings that people have made of an event or an artifact to considering what things are or should be valuable.  At the very least, the humanities declare: this is what these people valued.  But to look at what they valued is to think about what can have value, and to consider what I value.  Furthermore, for many devotees of the humanities, that reflection on values is precisely what is valuable about novels, historical narratives, anthropological investigations. 

This interest in questions of value can be formal or substantive.  I think most teachers of literature (just to stick to that limited domain for the moment) pursue both.  They are committed to what usually gets called “critical thinking,” which means a mode of reflection on received ideas and values, a way of questioning them in order to examine what I will still believe after doing that reflecting.  The examined life and all that.  But literary works often advocate for specific substantive values: sympathy, justice, the alleviation of suffering and/or of inequalities (or, on the conservative side, reverence for tradition and established authority).  And teachers often choose to have students read works that promote values the teacher values. 

I don’t think the humanities can get out of the values business (even if some of the arts can).  There is no fact/value divide in the humanities—and, thus, the humanities are going to be embroiled in endless controversies so long as values themselves are a site of dispute.  You can’t, I believe, wipe clean the substantive bits of the humanities, leaving only a formal method that has no concrete implications.  As current controversies demonstrate, “critical thinking” and “open-mindedness” are themselves deemed threatening in certain quarters because they imply that various sacred cows are not sacred, are open to dissent.  Any approach that refuses to take things on authority is suspect. The arts may (although usually don’t) sidestep issues of authority by just saying this is one person’s take on things—and you can ignore it as you wish.  But the humanities don’t have that escape route; they are committed to the view that only things and beliefs that have been examined are worthy of authority and credence—and they, in their practice, are inevitably involved in considering what things/activities/beliefs about what is meaningful, what is valuable, one should adopt. Every formal methods, in other words, has substantive consequences, so formalism of any sort is never going to be value-free.

The Aesthetic

This will be the first in a long thread on the aesthetic.

I may be misreading Dom Lopes’ Being for Beauty, but I come away with a definition of the aesthetic that he, very likely, does not intend to offer.  To wit: the aesthetic is excellence in any human practice whatsoever.  We take pleasure in seeing something well done.  That super-competence is above and beyond functionality.  There are many ways to put the ball in the basket in a basketball game.  Some are workmanlike; they get the job done.  Other ways are surprising, graceful, acrobatic, have panache etc.  It’s those “extras” that are aesthetic.  We call someone an excellent musician or speaker or teacher when they do more than just deliver the goods.  They elicit a response that exceeds communicating to an audience the content of the deed or the recognition that the deed has achieved its intended outcome.  Mere effectiveness, functionality, is not aesthetic.

For starters, then, we should probably resist nominalization here.  “The aesthetic” is exactly the wrong phrasing.  Better to see the aesthetic in terms of adverbs (especially) and adjectives.  The aesthetic resides in how a thing is done, not in what is being done.  The nouns can take care of the what.  We use the adverbs and adjectives to qualify the nouns—which leads us directly to the common notion that the aesthetic has to do with qualities, not quantities, not with the bare facts, but with elaborated facts.  We enter the aesthetic when we take basic functions—eating, having sex, dressing, communicating—and make them elaborate.  We explore the various ways of doing something—and take pleasure in playing with the possibilities. 

Thus, from one point of view, the aesthetic is not cost-effective.  It asks us to expend more time and energy in doing something than is required to simply get the job done.  The aesthetic, this is hardly a new thought, is unnecessary.  From a utilitarian point of view, it looks frivolous.  There are even cases where a concern with style, with doing something in a way that will impress and please others (or oneself), detracts from achieving the practice’s goal.  The aesthetic is a luxury, one that always implies the existence of a surplus.  I have the time and energy to not drive directly to the goal in the most efficient manner possible.  There is always the hint of the aristocratic here, the supercilious manner that says I don’t have to take achievement of the goal all that seriously.  I am more invested in the presentation of the self in a certain stylish way than I am in vulgar achievement.  Wanting something, grasping for it, is déclassé.

Utilitarians, those relentless accountants of human life, are forever telling us we cannot afford the aesthetic.  Somewhere there is someone in desperate need and you are wasting precious resources on your frivolities.  This is basically Peter Singer’s argument.  How dare you spend $150 at a fancy restaurant when there are people starving?  Only in the utopian achievement of all of humanity’s basic needs could the aesthetic be justified.  The same basic puritanism is displayed in Thomas More’s Utopia, where the aesthetic is just about completely banished not only because the focus is on providing for everyone’s needs, but also because the display side of the aesthetic, its striving for excellence as a way to impress, threatens egalitarianism. 

There have generally been two ripostes to the utilitarian distrust of the aesthetic, both captured in familiar Shakespearean tag lines.  The first comes with Toby’s plea for “cakes and ale” in Twelfth Night.  What a dull world it would be if we never played, never elaborated, but stuck to doing our tasks with metronomic regularity and efficiency. All work, and no play . . .

The second is more grandiose, enunciated in Lear’s anguished “O, reason not the need.”  Here the aesthetic becomes the very ground of humanness.  “Man’s life is cheap as beasts’” if we are bound to needs, to the necessary.  From being elaborate play, the aesthetic gets transformed, in one giant leap, into the very space of freedom.  This line of thought is particularly potent in German philosophy, running from Kant and Schiller directly to Arendt and Marcuse (among many others).  For Schiller, the aesthetic is what makes us human, because it means we are not tied to the actual, to what today presents to and demands of us.  We are human because we can entertain possibilities, imagine futures, that transcend current circumstances.  The aesthetic is the realm of the virtual, of the unrealized imaginative, contrasted to what stands in front of us right now.  And it is precisely that ability to transcend the here and now that provides the freedom that, for him, is essential to being human, not animal. 

You can see what has happened here.  We have gone from the aesthetic being unnecessary, a playful elaboration of things that need to be done, to that unnecessity become the bedrock of the aesthetic’s becoming just about the most important thing about us as human beings.  Our very humanity is at stake.

I am uncomfortable with the swing from frivolity to the ground of humanness.  I find the frivolity position more plausible, but do think it neglects the fact that every culture we know of displays aesthetic elaborations.  That fact suggests there is some core of necessity in the aesthetic.  It is not ever dispensed with.  If it has no functional pay-off, then (paradoxically) the lack of functionality must be playing some role that humans cannot jettison.  On the other hand, trying to colonize imaginative endeavors that strive to creatively rewrite possible futures under the flag of the aesthetic looks like special pleading to me.  Humans exercise their imagination in all sorts of ways—including when they devise more efficient ways to do things as well as more elaborate ways to do them.  Our freedom (conceived as the effort to transcend necessities) is manifest in utilitarian endeavors as well as aesthetic ones.  The Wright brothers were utilitarians through and through.  They weren’t looking for style points; they were just trying to overcome what had been a necessity in human life until they came along: we were tied to the ground. 

Maybe that simply means we are not humans without imagination.  But it also seems a bad idea to trot out this whole notion of “humanness” at this point.  Better, it seems to me, just to talk about instances where imagination is deployed—and not be bound to some dubious claim that non-human animals lack imagination, or to insidious assertions that some non-imaginative humans aren’t fully human.  In other words, let’s just skip tying the activity of imagining to some status of being.

Returning to the aesthetic, and the extremes that arguing along the lines of necessity/freedom gets us into, I am inclined to want to shift the terms.  What happens if we think of the aesthetic under the general rubrics of experience and communication. On the experience side, aestheticization is way of ratcheting up intensity. That intensity can be one of pleasure—but pleasure seems way too blunt a term to capture the subtleties aesthetic elaboration can provide. Again, we are on familiar ground here.  The connoisseur or epicure is often suspect, especially to the puritanical utilitarian, because the intensity is excessive to function.  And some of the intense experiences the aesthetic offers have no apparent function at all except to provide that intensity. 

So maybe we haven’t escaped the necessity/freedom issue at all.  Certainly, aestheticists have always championed the freedom of doing something for its own sake, with no concern for a return on investment for the time and energy spent.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to talk of these things without slipping into economic metaphors?  Still, focusing on the range of experiences the aesthetic might offer does allow us to avoid talk of “humanness,” while affording a pluralism that lowers the stakes considerably.  We are not talking any longer of some sort of “freedom” that makes us human, or is necessary (sweet paradox) to living a full, satisfactory, or flourishing life.  Instead, we are just talking about a wide variety of intensities and pleasures that some people might pursue even if those same experiences leave others indifferent.  Why would the entomologist scorn the novelist—or vice versa?

 Aesthetic elaboration makes for more effective communication.  Making something intense, memorable, distinctive etc. are all ways of grabbing and focusing attention.  Elaboration, in other words, may not just be pleasing, but also serve to grease the movement of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and other content from one person to another.  I think those of us devoted to the arts—and committed to having the arts take up some space in any educational curriculum—are most often attached to the messages, the content, we see art works as attempting to convey.

This is a vexed topic.  Aestheticism had as its very goal to strip the arts of all content.  Art with a message is often condemned as tendentious and, thus, inferior.  But it seems simply wrong to dissociate the arts from either an attempt to provide an intense perceptual experience (an event) as in non-representational music or painting.  Or to provide a meditation on the meanings and feelings that certain kinds of experiences elicit.  The literary arts, to a very large extent, try to explore the complex ideas and emotions that surround various situations—complex ideas and emotions that direct namings (anger, love) do not adequately capture. The elaboration in these instances is in the service of more adequate representation of things that resist such representation.  That’s one reason metaphors and other figures of speech become so central to literary practice.  And that’s why literary works can often strive to evoke an emotion instead of try to describe or represent it.  I still think either strategy can be called an attempt at communication. 

I will end here for today.