Ideology of the Aesthetic


In considering the relationship between art & politics, I was struck by Terry Eagleton’s book The Ideology of the Aesthetic on Saturday at online Bluestockings. These are some preliminary passages that struck me in reading the introduction and the chapter on Adorno “Art After Auschwitz.” Possibly some starting points for further developing thinking about how our activity has operated in this field of political action and artistic practice. A couple of particularly salient statements on autonomy, which also reflect certain elements of thinking aroudn The Commons and I v Us.

Why…should this theoretical persistence of the aesthetic typify an historical period when cultural practice might be claimed to have lost much of its traditional social relevance, debased as it is to a branch of general commodity production?

My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony. The construction of the modern notion of the aesthetic artefact is thus inseparable from the construction of the dominant ideological forms of modern class-society, and indeed from a whole new form of human subjectivity appropriate to that social order. It is on this account, rather than because men and women have suddenly awoken to the supreme value of painting or poetry, that aesthetics plays so obtrusive a role in the intellectual heritage of the present. But my argument is also that the aesthetic, understood in a certain sense, provides an unusually powerful challenge and alternative to these dominant ideological forms, and is in this sense an eminently contradictory phenomenon.

(pages 2-3) Cheap

Once artefacts become commodities in the market place, they exist for nothing and nobody in particular, and can consequently be rationalized, ideologically speaking, as existing entirely and gloriously for themselves. It is this notion of autonomy or self-referentiality which the new discourse of aesthetics is centrally concerned to elaborate; and it is clear enough, from a radical political viewpoint, just how disabling any such idea of aesthetic autonomy must be. It is not only, as radical thought has familiarly insisted, that art is thereby conveniently sequestered from all other social practices, to become an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find an idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation and material possessiveness. It is also, rather more subtly, that the idea of autonomy — of a mode of being which is entirely self-regulating and self-determining — provides the middle class with just the ideological model of subjectivity it requires for its material operations. Yet this concept of autonomy is radically double-edged: if on the one hand it provides a central constituent of bourgeois ideology, it also marks an emphasis on the self-determining nature of human powers and capacities which becomes, in the work of Karl Marx and others, the anthropological foundation of a revolutionary opposition to bourgeois utility. The aesthetic is at once, as I try to show, the very secret prototype of human subjectivity in early capitalist society, and a vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought. It signifies a creative turn to the sensuous body, as well as an inscribing of that body with a subtly oppressive law; it represents on the one hand a liberatory concern with concrete particularity, and on the other hand a specious form of universalism. If it offers a generous utopian image of reconciliation between men and women at present divided from one another, it also blocks and mystifies the real political movement towards such historical community. Any account of this amphibious concept which either uncritically celebrates or unequivocally denounces it is thus likely to overlook its real historical complexity.

(page 9)

The aesthetic…is that privileged condition in which the law of the whole is nothing but the interrelations of its parts.

(page 347)

Culture is deeply locked into the structure of commodity production; but one effect of this is to release it into a certain ideological autonomy, hence allowing it to speak against the very social order with which it is guiltily complicit. It is this complicity which spurs art into protest, but which also strikes that protest agonized and ineffectual, forma gesture rather than irate polemic. Art can only hope to be valid if it provides an implicit critique of the conditions which produce it — a validation which, in evoking art’s privileged remoteness from such conditions, instantly invalidates itself. Conversely, art can only be authentic if it silently acknowledges how deeply it is compromised by what it opposes; but to press this logic too far is precisely to undermine authenticity. The aporia of modernist culture lies in its plaintive, stricken attempt to turn autonomy (the free-standing nature of the aesthetic work) against autonomy (its functionless status as commodity on the market); what warps it into non-self-identity is the inscription of its own material conditions on its interior. It would seem that art must now either abolish itself entirely — the audacious strategy of the avant garde — or hover indecisively between life and death, subsuming its own impossibility into itself.

(page 349)

Art for Adorno is thus less some idealized realm of being than contradiction incarnate. Every artefact works resolutely against itself, and this in a whole variety of ways. It strives for some pure autonomy, but knows that without a heterogeneous moment it would be nothing, vanishing into thin air. It is at once being-for-itself and being-for-society, always simultaneously itself and something else, critically estranged from its history yet incapable of taking up a vantage-point beyond it. By forswearing intervention in the real, artistic reason accrues to itself a certain precious innocence; but at the same time all art resonates with social repression, and becomes culpable precisely because it refuses to intervene. Culture is truth and illusion, cognition and false consciousness, at a stroke: like all spirit, it suffers from narcissistic delusion of existing for itself, but does so in a way which offers to negate all false claims to such self-identity in the commodified world around it. Delusion is art’s very mode of existence, which is not to grant it a license to Buy advocate delusion. If the content of the art work is an illusion, it is in some sense a necessary one, and so does not lie; art is true to the degree that it is an illusion of the non-illusory. In positing online itself as illusion, it exposes the realm of commodities (of which it is one) as unreal, thus forcing illusion into the service of truth. Art is an allegory of undeluded happiness — to which it adds the fatal rider that this cannot be had, continually breaking the promise of the well-being it adumbrates.

(page 352)

I’ll be coming to this with more personal comments and edits. Photo tagged with aesthetic from f-auto purchase discount altace no rx on Flickr. cheap zestoretic side

2 thoughts on “Ideology of the Aesthetic

  1. Jesse

    Good question. As the book was first published in 1990, I don’t think it’s addressing the current discourse around Ranciere. On the previous page, Eagleton writes:

    “I must confess that I also have in my sights those on the political left for whom the aesthetic is simply ‘bourgeois ideology’, to be worsted and ousted by alternative forms of cultural politics. The aesthetic is indeed, as I hope to show, a bourgeois concept in the most literal historical sense, hatched and nurtured in the Enlightenment; but only for the drastically undialectical thought of a vulgar Marxist or ‘post-Marxist’ trend of thought could this fact cue an automatic condemnation. It is left moralism, not historical materialism, which having established the bourgeois provenance of a particular concept, practice or institution, then disowns it in an access of ideological purity. From the Communist Manifesto onwards, Marxism has never ceased to sing the praises of the bourgeoisie — to cherish and recollect that in its great revolutionary heritage from which radicals must either enduringly learn, or face the prospect of a closed, illiberal socialist order in the future. Those who have now been correctly programmed to reach for their decentred subjectivities at the very mention of the dread phrase ‘liberal humanist’ repressively disavow the very history which constitutes them, which is by no means uniformly negative or oppressive. We forget at our political peril the heroic struggles of earlier ‘liberal humanists’ again the brutal autocracies of feudalist absolutism. If we can and must be severe critics of Enlightenment, it is Enlightenment which has empowered us to be so.”

    So, from this, my interpretation is the “new aesthetic discourse” to which he refers is the radical poststructuralism/postmodernism of that time. My sense, from the brief glance at descriptions of Ranciere’s work, is that his approach to aesthetics is quite in-line with Eagleton’s.

  2. Johanna

    Haven’t read Ranciere. Haven’t read Ideology of the Aesthetic. But here’s this from Ben Davis’s review of Ranciere’s Politics of the Aesthetic (good lord…):

    “Rancière’s lofty language and constant qualifications signal to the reader on every page that we are dealing with a problem that is very difficult indeed. But the question of political art is, in fact, straightforward. We can see how Rancière muddies the waters if we look at how he treats Russian Constructivism. “It is the paradigm of aesthetic autonomy,” he declares, “that became the new paradigm for revolution, and it subsequently allowed for the brief but decisive encounter between the artisans of the Marxist revolution and the artisans of forms for a new way of life” (p. 27). This is to give rather too much autonomy to the paradigm of esthetic autonomy. Trotsky’s argument in Literature and Revolution is simpler and clearer: Bohemian artists and political revolutionaries both stood in opposition to the conservatism of Russia’s Czarist society. But it was the success of the political revolution that opened a channel for artistic rebellion to play a socially progressive role (and without the political clarity of a Trotsky, some of these same artists were even able to buy into the right-wing, art-hating Stalinist state — say what you will about Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as a satire on Stalin’s leadership cult, The Old and the New is an avant garde hymn to his brutal forced collectivization of farming).”

    Interesting here is the critique of artistic autonomy. In this model, truly political/progressive artists are necesarrily reactive – watching and waiting for opportunities for relevance to open up or be created by other, more active, members of the community…

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