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Andrew Bowie

Confessions of a ‘New Aesthete’:


A Response to the ‘New Philistines’

Pausing to allow the waves of sound of the last movement of Mahler’s


Third Symphony to ebb away, I return to the delights of my glass of
Californian Chardonnay and reflect on the way Dimitri Mitropoulos’s
interpretation of the symphony steers the vital course between long-term
structure, sudden transitions, irony, and contrapuntal balance. The wine
slowly numbs the tension of the day in a mixture of fragrant fruit and
firm alcohol. Or something like that. I did listen to Mahler and I did
have a glass or three of Chardonnay. As for the appropriate description,
well, Mitropoulos really does conduct the best performance I have heard:
for once the slow final movement avoids too much sentimentality while
retaining its expressive intensity. But what is life as a ‘new aesthete’ actu-
ally like? I am told I ought to know: hence my opening attempt to give a
taste of it.

Ten years ago I went back to being a jazz saxophonist in Berlin for a year,
in order to finance the time required for writing a book. During a year of
characteristic Berlin extremes of ‘voluptuousness and excess’,1 of late
nights playing jazz, listening to Mahler and others played by the Berlin
Philharmonic, personal agonies, and boringly normal academic research,
I wrote a large part of Aesthetics and Subjectivity. From Kant to Nietzsche.2
Ten years later the difference between Kant’s ‘empirical’ and ‘intelligi-
ble’ character has been brought home to me by an nlr article on
‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’ by Dave Beech and John Roberts, in which I
am regarded as the defender of an aesthetic pleasure which distances
itself from the ‘voluptuous contingencies, activities and delights’ of ‘the
philistine’, and as the questionable reinstater of ‘a “lost”, or disposed [?],
sense of the internal unity and integrity of subjectivity as such [?]’.3
Given the nature of the ‘empirical’ genesis of the book, it might seem
understandable that the avoidance of excess and the unity and integrity
of the self became its dominant ‘intelligible’ themes. The trouble is, they
don’t.

Now not many people, apart from the author him- or herself, are that
interested in attempts to police interpretations of recent critical or theo-
retical works. If policing my intentions were all that is at issue here, I

1 Dave Beech and John Roberts ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, nlr 218, p. 126.
2 Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity. From Kant to Nietzsche, Manchester 1990.
3 Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 108.

105
could stop now, recommend that everyone give a boost to my fairly mea-
gre royalties by buying the book mentioned above, and read what I really
say. There are, though, symptomatic misinterpretations—what one can
regard as a form of ‘ideology’—that transcend the particular local nature
of a debate. The nature of these misinterpretations allows us to see how a
blindness to key aspects of an issue is an index both of deeper theoretical
difficulties and of social contradictions that are manifest in those diffi-
culties. On the Left the locus classicus of many such difficulties has been
the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. The initial point in the
present case is that Beech and Roberts’s idea—which they share with
many on the contemporary Left—that there is a necessary incompatibil-
ity between a defence both of a notion of ‘aesthetic autonomy’ (and the
concomitant defence of great ‘bourgeois art’) and of the importance of
self-consciousness for vital issues in philosophy, and attention to ‘the
body’ and its ‘pleasures’ could only occur to academic theorists. It occurs,
of course, particularly to those who want to show they are in touch with
‘the world’ and are therefore not weedy academic aesthetes, but engaged
sexual, social and political animals. The other obvious point is that such
claims are based on a characteristic failure to take stubborn philosophical
issues seriously, in a manner which has dogged theorists on the Left at
least since Marx’s worst attempts simply to dismiss inconvenient philo-
sophical rivals. The ‘revenge of the aesthetic’ supposedly propagated by
Jay Bernstein, Terry Eagleton and myself, which Beech and Roberts see
as a reaction to the widespread dismissal of aesthetics in post-war
European Marxism, is a much more complex and difficult phenomenon
than they make it. It is therefore important not just to end up going
down the same road of cultural politics once again from a slightly differ-
ent direction.

So what is it about ‘Mahler and Chardonnay’ that is so important? The


whole thing presumably sounds rather like the worst end of the ‘com-
modification’ of culture present in aspects of Classic fm, which relies on
the wine-drinking consumerism of an affluent audience to generate a
viable commercial enterprise. But none of these issues are actually that
simple. On the one hand, for example, Classic fm and the like would not
be heard dead broadcasting a whole Mahler symphony, let alone one in a
slightly dodgy old live recording, and, on the other, wine presumably
comes for Beech and Roberts under the ‘voluptuous contingencies, activ-
ities and delights’ that we aesthetes—for whom ‘the body’ is supposedly
mere ‘sensuous particularity’—exclude in the name of higher non-bodily
truths. ‘Culture’ is, of course, a pretty diverse phenomenon, and it is one
which the Left has regularly failed to come to appropriate terms with, in
a variety of symptomatic ways. This fact was, along with a deep suspi-
cion of the main Nietzsche- and Heidegger-influenced assumptions of
post-structuralism, part of what led to my book on aesthetics and subjec-
tivity. The real question, though, is which aesthetics, and which subjectiv-
ity, and that is why I think I ought to reply to Beech and Roberts. I am
aware in doing so that Beech and Roberts’s predominant concern is with
the world of the contemporary visual arts, particularly in this country,
but, given that this does not prevent them making points about much
broader questions of modern aesthetic theory, there seems no reason not
to engage with these broader questions in order to arrive at a different
assessment of key problems in contemporary culture.
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Epistemology and Aesthetics

Beech and Roberts’s misunderstanding of the position advanced in


Aesthetics and Subjectivity is evident in their claim that I take the ‘“para-
dox” of the aesthetic’ as ‘the starting point for the aesthetic grounding of
the ethics [sic]’.4 This appeal to the ethical is what they regard as the
characteristic feature of the ‘new aestheticism’. My version of ‘new aes-
theticism’ is significant, they maintain, because of its account of ‘aes-
thetic subjectivity’. This leads them to the claim that aesthetic
‘self-transformation’, an ethical issue in a particularly Greek sense—of
the kind the later Foucault concerned himself with—was the core of my
argument. However, the position advanced in Aesthetics and Subjectivity is
actually only concerned with the ethical in a rather indirect manner: its
main claim is in fact epistemological, and here we will see that Beech and
Roberts do not seem to have much idea of what I am talking about.5

The link between aesthetics and subjectivity cannot, despite Beech and
Roberts’s claims that my position involves some kind of isolation of
works of art from society and history, even be understood without consid-
ering the issues which led at the end of the eighteenth century to the
realization that new forms of human self-understanding and the growing
sense of the importance of art for modernity were necessarily linked. My
main concern here is to argue against a series of damaging reductions.6
The fact, for example, that the rise in the public sphere of the idea of the
autonomous self is undoubtedly linked to the rise of modern capitalism
and its breaking of the bonds of feudalism cannot be used as an excuse for
not inquiring into the detail of how the structure and nature of this self is
to be understood, an inquiry which already began with Saint Augustine.
One cannot derive philosophical arguments in this area merely from an
examination of the historico-social determinants of subjectivity, not least
because those who are doing the examining must be subject to the same
kind of determinations, and therefore cannot finally say how history
determines their own subjectivity. This point has most effectively been
made by Gadamer and others in the hermeneutic tradition.

The danger here is either an indefensible regress of subjective accounts of


the determined nature of subjectivity, or an invalid appeal to the
absolute position of a ‘super-subject’ that finally transcends the ideologi-
cal and historical determination of individual subjects. Significantly, one
of the major concerns of the philosophical history which Aesthetics and
Subjectivity tries to rewrite was this dilemma, a dilemma which, from
Kant and Fichte, to Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, to other twen-
tieth century Marxists and beyond, radical theorists of modernity all try
in some way to overcome. In my view, the dilemma precludes any defini-
tive theory of subjectivity’s historical determination, and leads neces-
sarily to the assumption that individual subjectivity is not reducible to a
4 Ibid.p. 106.
5 This is not to say that I think the ethical issues unimportant: in From Romanticism to
Critical Theory. The Philosophy of German Literary Theory, London 1997, I try to develop
some of the ethical implications of aesthetic experience against Heidegger, and in the tra-
dition of the Romantics and Adorno.
6 In From Romanticism to Critical Theory I show how, despite his ‘new aesthete’ status,

Eagleton is prey to some of the same reductions.


107
general theory produced by other individual subjects. If one is not to
make ‘history’ or ‘society’ the Archimedean point for the complete
understanding of subjectivity one must take other factors into account
that cannot be reducible to their genesis in history and society, such as, to
take the obvious example, the specific individual capacity for meaning-
ful innovation exemplified by Beethoven. While Beethoven evidently
required both the—revolutionary—historical circumstances in which he
worked, and the labour of Haydn, Mozart and others, for his musical rev-
olution, that does not explain the specificity of what he actually did.
How do you get from the French Revolution, Viennese reaction, the his-
tory of melody and counterpoint, and deafness, to the Grosse Fuge? Now
the historical fact is that many of the theoretical resources in Romantic-
ism for taking crucial aspects of the creative subject into account were
largely consigned to oblivion in the wake of the Hegelian, Marxist and
scientific materialist tendency to regard subjectivity as wholly compre-
hensible via its natural, historical and social determinations. Versions of
the reductive tendency also recur in aspects of the post-structuralist sub-
stitution of ‘language’ for ‘history’ or ‘society’ as the determination
which makes subjectivity a merely derivative issue, a substitution evi-
dent in Derrida’s dictum in Positions about the subject being an ‘effect’ of
the ‘general text’.

The catch-all heading for this theoretical tendency is the ‘subversion’ or


‘decentring’ of the subject in modern philosophy, which is usually
regarded as best articulated by Nietzsche and Freud, and by linguisti-
cized Freudians like Jacques Lacan. Beech and Roberts assert that my
supposed overlooking of ‘so much of the detail and substance’ of these
theories means it is hard to question my position without mere ‘bald
restatement’ of the theories in question, but this is—and here we arrive
at something pretty strange—‘not because such theories are “true”’.7 We
are told they will return to my ‘conception of subjectivity’ later, but they
do not in fact confront the question of subjectivity in a serious manner.

This failure is compounded by their crucial claim that I share the idea of
an ‘opposition between reason and aesthetics’ with Bernstein.8 This
assertion, though, really is just nonsense, and it is another case of a knee-
jerk response all too familiar on the Left. The aim of the whole of
Aesthetics and Subjectivity, as it is of Adorno’s work as I understand it, is to
argue that a conception of reason (and politics—I do not think the two
can be separated) which fails to take account of aesthetics is potentially
disastrous, as it is, for example, when the conception takes the form of
contemporary scientism, or when it is unconcerned with the need to find
ways of communicating rationality that will have a broad social reso-
nance. Fear of the consequences of the failure to find such ways was what
fuelled the politics of early German Idealism and Romanticism.

Aesthetics and Subjectivity presents this issue in terms of the tension


between the modern autonomy of the work of art, as a manifestation of
individual human freedom which tries, at the growing risk of incompre-
hensibility, to resist the wholesale conversion of its products into com-

7
Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 108.
8
Ibid. p. 109.
108
modity forms, and the (failed) desire for what the early Schelling and
Hegel termed a ‘mythology of reason’, in which progressive ways of
understanding the major cognitive, political and ethical issues of moder-
nity would become accessible to the whole population via aesthetic
forms of articulation. I make it clear that the tension between these posi-
tions is still with us, and cannot simply be resolved by plumping for a
cosy aestheticism based on the autonomy of the work of art. The tension
also cannot be resolved, as Beech and Roberts hope to resolve it, via a the-
ory of ‘partisanship’ and the leading back of art into everyday life: too
much of what was gained in the rise of aesthetic modernism is thereby
consigned to irrelevance, as I will suggest below. My view of the aes-
thetic does therefore entail an aporia, but in the present situation it is
better to try to understand an aporia that results from the real state of
modern culture than to pretend the aporia does not exist.

Surrendering Aesthetics to the Right

The dilemma here is revealed in Ernst Bloch’s demand that, given the
success of the Right in so doing, the Left should use more aesthetic
modes of communication and persuasion in politics. If the Left does not
employ such modes, the Right gains political advantages, but when it
employs such modes the Left seems invariably to get dragged onto the
territory of the Right, usually with disturbing consequences. Great art
does, I contend, offer something which transcends this dilemma, albeit
at the cost of not being immediately socially effective and of being open to
ideological misuse. The effects of the direct intervention of art into poli-
tics seem to me to be so diverse and diffuse—where there are any serious
immediate effects at all—that aesthetic theory can say little about them
and must give way to the sort of detailed empirical sociological analysis
which can (although it need not) lead to any wider view of these issues
being lost. Whether art’s more indirect and long-term effects are so
insignificant can, though, somewhat crudely be gauged by trying to
imagine what our culture would be like without its major works of art,
from buildings, to texts, to great music: these inform all kinds of much
more mundane subsequent aspects of culture by opening up space for
new forms of life. This fact is, however, most immediately evident in the
way avant-garde cultural production eventually becomes mobilized as a
resource for the commodity world. On the other hand, the aesthetic
import of innovative works is not simply exhausted by this sort of appro-
priation. Even the desire to get away from the ideological power of major
art works is testimony to their revelation of how modern societies may
still come to value that which is neither merely instrumental nor merely
an object of consumption. By unconsciously informing so many of our
evaluations, such works may also become part of the very world we
inhabit in ways we can no longer even fully analyze. Precisely because
Beech and Roberts are so concerned to present the new aesthetes as iso-
lating art from society and politics, this ‘world-disclosing’ aspect of art,
which is—albeit questionably—highlighted by Heidegger in The Origin
of the Work of Art, plays no serious role in their arguments.

The main theoretical point here is, then, pace Beech and Roberts, that it
is because aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to cognitive and ethical
terms that it is so vital to a serious modern conception of reason. Beech
109
and Roberts’s picture of what I say can easily be refuted via their asser-
tion that I am defending a notion of aesthetic autonomy which distances
art from reason and history. Consider the following remark about
Adorno from my conclusion: ‘In Schopenhauer, sustaining complete
autonomy for aesthetics removed it from any active role in enlightening
us about our capacity for a reason which would not be purely instrumen-
tal. Adorno is emphatic that this is not his view’.9 Neither, then, is it
mine. What I in fact do is to refuse to reduce the aesthetic to the social:
this refusal is what links the aesthetic to the need for a better account of
subjectivity. It should, therefore, already appear highly unlikely that I
would be satisfied in this context with a notion of ‘the internal unity and
integrity of subjectivity as such’ (Beech and Roberts, quoted above): if
that were the case, why would I be so concerned with the aesthetic means
modernity has employed to try to engage both with the divided nature of
self-consciousness and with the increasing systemic determination of the
subjects of modern societies that is visible in totalitarian politics and in
some of the effects of the mass media?

Now I am really at a loss with what to do with Beech and Roberts’s claim
that they do not want to restate ‘recent theories of subjectivity’, because I
overlook them in order to ‘bring about’ my restorative ‘central goal’, and
not because they are actually ‘“true”’. Why are Beech and Roberts so
afraid of asserting that their view has claims to truth—a fear which they
again share with many on the contemporary theoretical Left? Can one
not be aware of the potentially repressive aspect of ‘holding/asserting as
true’ without moving towards the incoherent position which seems to
think it can do without truth altogether? If one invokes ‘the insidious
operation of power immanent in all knowledge and judgement’10 in such
contexts one is actually making a truth-claim far more absolute than that
of one’s opponent who thinks truth is unavoidable because it is insepara-
ble from meaning. How do Beech and Roberts know all knowledge and
judgement is subverted by power, and what performative status does
their judgement that this is the case actually have, given that, in their
own terms, power is ‘insidiously’ operating within it? The old Nietzsch-
ean fallacies in such claims all depend on the now increasingly discred-
ited idea that truth is supposed to be the representation of a ‘ready-made
world’.11 The Romantic philosophical tradition of Friedrich Schlegel
and Novalis was the first to bid farewell to this idea, without, though,
bidding farewell to the idea that truth may involve normative obliga-
tions that are built into language and other forms of articulation, even
including music.12 The simple point here is that we have to have some
intuitive sense of what ‘true’ means in order to communicate at all. Truth
itself cannot be explained by another theory: that either leads to a

9 Aesthetics and Subjectivity, p. 263.


10 Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 117.
11 The phrase comes from Hilary Putnam, Realism and Reason. Philosophical Papers Vol. 3,

Cambridge 1983.
12 I will touch on this below, but given that I take 340 pages of From Romanticism to Critical

Theory to make substantial sense of it, I shall have to leave the issue pretty open. I do, inci-
dentally, think that power plays some role in all forms of communication—and that
power can be legitimately exercised—but I do not think truth can be reduced to it, for the
reason just given: the claim cannot even be asserted without either self-contradiction or
paradox.
110
regress, because the theory would itself have to be true, and so on, or to
an arbitrary claim like ‘truth is power’, where one still has to ask: ‘What
makes that claim true?’ At this point, it is pretty clear that Beech and
Roberts’s position is not coherent, and we need to look more carefully at
the question of subjectivity to get to a workable account of the main
issue.

The ‘Reflection Model’ of Subjectivity

My real claim about subjectivity, which is taken from the work of Dieter
Henrich and Manfred Frank, is that many recent theories of the subver-
sion of the subject have a fatal epistemological flaw.13 For Beech and
Roberts, rejecting one model of the subverted subject seems to mean
that one necessarily ‘reinstates’ a ‘unified subject’, a term they never
trouble to explain. In Aesthetics and Subjectivity I make it very clear that
many recent insights into the decentring of the subject were already
common currency in the Romantic tradition, and that I find them con-
vincing. It is therefore vital to be aware that there are different issues
involved here: one can be dealt with epistemologically, the other—the
issue of the aesthetic—is more intractable.

The epistemological flaw in many theories of the subversion of the sub-


ject is the following. If one is to talk about what it is that enables me to
ascribe my own memories, experiences and actions to myself, and about
‘what it is like’ to be me, it is no good using what Henrich terms the
‘reflection model’ of self-consciousness. In ‘reflection’ the I splits itself
in thinking about itself into a self that does the thinking and a self that
is thought about. Clearly something of the kind is possible, given that I
am able to objectify my own thoughts. The two selves must, of course,
also ultimately be the same, otherwise fundamental facts about self-con-
scious life, like memory, become inexplicable. This, though, is where
the trouble starts. The metaphor of looking in a mirror makes the essen-
tial problem clear. If I look in a mirror to see myself as an object I will
only recognize myself, as opposed to a random object or person, if I am
already aware that it is myself as subject that I am to look at before the
reflection. The external image in the object world cannot itself provide
the criterion which allows me to see the reflected object as myself, as the
subject that is looking at the image. It is actually the very ability to fail to
recognize one’s image that is the basis of this account of self-conscious-
ness. Ernst Mach—to whom this happened—had no trouble attributing
the experience of seeing a dishevelled someone in a mirror on a tram to
himself, the problem was how he came to realize that it was himself that
he was seeing. For my memories to be in the first person at all, the expe-
riences they are based on must initially be immediately and incorrigibly
mine if they are to be able to be reflexively—though now fallibly—re-
identified as mine. The ‘unity’ involved in this theory of self-conscious-
ness is, therefore, not at all a total self-transparency—what Derrida and
others term ‘self-presence’—or some kind of imaginary harmony of one-

13 See, for instance, Dieter Henrich, ‘Fichte’s Original Insight’, in D. Christensen, ed.,

Contemporary German Philosophy. Vol. 1, Pennsylvania 1982, pp. 15-53; Manfred Frank, ‘Is
Self-Consciousness a Case of présence à soi?’, in David Wood, ed., Derrida: A Critical Reader,
Oxford 1992, pp. 218-34.
111
self with oneself.14 The unity actually subverts the reflexive subject, pre-
venting it from giving an exhaustive account of its own nature. Pre-
reflexive self-consciousness cannot be explained in terms of a ‘unified’
personal identity, because it is ontologically and epistemologically prior
to any such unification.

Beech and Roberts reduce this argument to the idea that Aesthetics and
Subjectivity is concerned with the ‘irreducibility of self-consciousness to
critical reflection’ (my emphasis), when the point is actually the wholly
specific epistemological notion of ‘reflection’ just described. Their fail-
ure to understand is most evident in such locutions as ‘It is only because
there is such a thing as consciousness that consciousness can reflect on
itself’.15 The whole point of the view of subjectivity in Aesthetics and
Subjectivity is that ‘the subject’ or ‘consciousness’ is not a ‘thing’ like any
other thing in the world, that is, an object that can be identified in a
proposition such as ‘my self-consciousness is the effect of the general
text’. This is why the reflection model does not work, because when I try
to objectify myself I cannot do so in the way I reflect on the nature of
objects in propositional assertions. Much work in the recent analytical
philosophy of mind, for example on the use of ‘indexicals’ in relation to
the ‘I’, has increasingly confirmed the truth of this position.

Beech and Roberts’s modishly decentred subject, which is not supposed


to require a ‘pre-ordered unity’ that would be ‘the guarantee of subjectiv-
ity itself’, actually ends up, then, in a wholly implausible situation.16 If
‘the body’ is to be voluptuously enjoyed as the ‘home of pleasures exer-
cised without guilt’,17 there must be a way of accounting for who or what
does the enjoying, without which there is no pleasure anyway. The fact is
that it is not my body that enjoys, it is I, as embodied self-consciousness,
who enjoys: if I’m not there ‘the body’ starts to rot. To be sure, I need my
body, but, once again, I cannot be reduced to it, qua merely material
entity. In Beech and Roberts’s terms, we end up with the following sorts
of absurdity: ‘my eardrums and brain are just enjoying Mahler’s Third
while my taste-buds enjoy the Chardonnay’, where it is still unclear what
makes these things mine, as opposed to mere subjectless occurrences in an
unknowable objective course of bodily nature. A cursory reading of
Sartre on pleasure rapidly puts paid to Beech and Roberts’s way of invok-
ing ‘the body’, which is, incidentally, repeated in much recent cultural
theory. As German Idealism and early Romanticism already realized, it is
no good just moving from some kind of idealism to a reductive ‘realism’

14 In On the History of Modern Philosophy, written between 1833 and 1834 Schelling, for

example, maintains in thoroughly Lacanian vein, ‘But the subject cannot grasp itself as
what it is, for precisely in attracting itself [in ‘reflection’] it becomes an other, this is the
basic contradiction, we can say the misfortune, in all being’. On the History of Modern
Philosophy, Cambridge 1994, p. 115.
15 Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 107.
16
Ibid., p. 127. Whatever this means: who or what does the ‘pre-ordering’ and what could
‘guarantee’ subjectivity?
17
Ibid. p. 126. The naïveté of this appeal to what itself entails a very emphatic sense of the
unity of the self (how otherwise is guilt to be avoided?) would never have occurred to
Romantic thinkers like Schelling, who were aware that, given the nature of self-con-
sciousness, there is no aspect of conscious life which is free of some kind of contradiction.
It is because of the contradictions that we are driven to seek unity via knowledge and plea-
sure, but one cannot ever finally conjure the contradictions away.
112
or ‘materialism’ of ‘the body’, because that way you reproduce all the
problems of dualism in another form.

Then to suggest, as Beech and Roberts do, that the ‘self of self-determina-
tion is...a totality of internal relations’18 just repeats the problem of
reflection: who sees the relations as a totality, given that the subjects
proposing the theory have no direct access to any self but their own?
Mere relations to other relations give you nothing but a regress: they do
not give you a self that can relate to (and be) its experiences. Given that I
do not actually have access to the ‘totality of internal relations’ at any
point in my life, yet still have a sense of a self which makes my experi-
ences mine, Beech and Roberts’s account cannot be correct.

My claim about subjectivity in this context is, then, that the subject is
not ‘ground of itself’, but that it cannot either be reduced to being an
explicable ‘effect’ of something else, be it language, society, history, bio-
logy or ‘the body’. The fact that these things may play a necessary role in
what it is does not mean that they can be used as the sufficient explana-
tory ground of individual self-consciousness. I can, within limits that are
never fully transparent to me, change my relationship to all these fac-
tors—not all the factors themselves—even though I may not be able ulti-
mately to explain the basis of my being able to do so. Subjectivity, then,
cannot be fully accounted for by the ways in which it reflects upon itself,
it is always more than it knows and always involves a ‘lack of being’
(Schelling) which we try to overcome in many ways. One of most signifi-
cant ways of confronting our ‘lack of being’ is through the production
and reception of aesthetic forms of articulation which cannot be
exhausted by the ways in which we are able to describe them conceptu-
ally.19

Autonomy and Ideology

The most obvious form of such an articulation is wordless music, hence


the vital new role which it began to play in art and philosophy at the
moment, near the end of the eighteenth century, when the Romantic
insight into the fact that self-consciousness could not finally ground
itself began to play a role in modern thought. I think that the enduring
power of the paradigmatic great works of music of this period—not the
‘eternal’ or ‘timeless’ power, as though (yet another reduction) the choice
in art were between mere transience and absolute eternity—is something
the Left hands over to the Right at its peril. There is probably nothing in
culture (or nature) that cannot, with sufficient ‘evil demon’-like skill, be
used to contribute to appalling ends. That is, though, not a reason to
make the barbarism inherent in some high culture the last word on how
we should approach that culture. Major works of art, then, retain a
potential which can be—and often is—misused, but which it is also vital
to come to terms with if one’s cultural politics are not to repeat the Left’s
familiar failures in this realm.

18 Ibid., p. 120.
19 This can be true of any form of utterance or articulation, but it does not matter in most
cases that this is so. It is precisely when it begins to matter that one cannot give an exhaus-
tive or adequate description that the significance of the aesthetic becomes apparent.
113
In a modern history continually threatened by nihilism there have been
few things that reveal as convincingly as great works of art what human
beings can achieve by exercising their freedom while coming to terms
with inescapable objective natural, social, historical, technical and other
constraints. The question to Beech and Roberts here is whether what
they offer as an alternative can begin to replace the potential for meaning
which is revealed by the great works of art in modernity and which filters
into all levels of cultural production. I do not think ‘pleasures without
guilt’ and ‘the body’ are going to be of much help. I am, though, fully
aware that it may indeed be the case that the era of the production of
great art is over, and that we therefore need good ways of coming to
terms with what that means for progressive cultural politics. The prob-
lem for Beech and Roberts is that, while the promise of the abolition of
penury and the possibility of greater pleasure has been the utopian moti-
vation of much revolutionary change, it is naïve to believe that a mean-
ingful culture will result of its own accord from the more equitable
distribution of social wealth and bodily pleasures. It is therefore vital to
ask what sources of cultural renewal the Left is actually offering in the
present situation. Here things look rather thin in the face of the ‘phan-
tasmagoria of commodities’ (including, of course, the commodity of
great art, in the form of mass reproduced books, music and so forth)
promised, and—let it not be forgotten—delivered to large parts of the
developed world, by transnational capitalism.

This may all seem rather speculative and my approach might appear far
from the direct political engagement required by Beech and Roberts.
However, the fact is that when the culture of ‘the body’—which itself
often seems like a highly questionable piece of essentially youth-oriented
ideology (see below)—is invoked against established forms of art, such
basic phenomena as a life-long engagement with a particular work, or
with a particular artistic practice, which change as one moves through
the phases of life, is potentially consigned to indifference. The idea, to
which Adorno is also prey at times, that such everyday receptive and pro-
ductive concern with existing art is merely ideological, in the face of the
totalitarian effects of the culture industry, is another of the reductions
which I am most concerned to counter. It is here, though, where things
get most difficult, and to this extent Beech and Roberts do point to some
vital issues. Does great art, then, actually matter that much?

A Meaningless Art?

The easy way out in relation to the paradigm case of music is to deny that
there is any serious way in which Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, as the
cliché case of great bourgeois music,20 means anything at all. Engage-
ment with it is therefore at the level of its being a ‘beautiful noise, signi-
fying nothing’,21 so that Peter Kivy wonders, for example, whether
music should play a role in ‘liberal education’, while letting musicolo-
gists tell us about what goes on in it. Surely, though, there must be
something to be said about why the Eroica is beautiful—which must
relate to meanings beyond its internal formal construction—as well as

20 It is, of course, the piece most often cited in this connection by Adorno.
21 Peter Kivy, The Fine Art of Repetition, Cambridge 1993, p. 19.
114
about why that kind of music became beautiful at a specific time in his-
tory, when a few years earlier many of its attributes were ‘ugly’. The bor-
derline between music and mere noise is one which has been continually
redefined since Beethoven, and the suggestion that we can say nothing
about what that means is absurd, relying on the idea that the only valid
understanding is supposedly context-free propositional knowledge of
the form provided by natural science. Kivy’s view of music is probably
shared by many listeners in real Western societies, so one cannot just dis-
miss it. It involves, of course, the most extreme version of the belief in
empty aesthetic autonomy which Beech and Roberts attribute to
Aesthetics and Subjectivity. What worries me is that Beech and Roberts’s
own position gives them few grounds for being concerned about this
issue, because they actually do not seem to think such art really matters
much anyway. Adorno’s work, though, is precisely important because it
values this music for its autonomous ‘rightness’ (Stimmigkeit) in its own
initial context: this rightness is both a source of its continuing aesthetic
success—and value in any serious musical training—and the key to a
whole series of insights into the nature of modernity. At the same time,
though, Adorno remorselessly suggests that the riven way we must now
understand such music, both as great autonomous art and as potential
ideology, can still give access to vital problems concerning the under-
standing of the possibilities for freedom in the modern world.

One straightforward way of understanding Adorno’s claims is precisely


to ask why it is so hard to create great contemporary music, or, for that
matter, great art of any kind. Employment of many of the resources
Beethoven could still use in a radically novel way is now most often the
route to mere reactionary banality: the means are, in certain contexts, no
longer true, because they no longer serve to disclose anything essential
via their unique particularity. Something—but what exactly?—
demands that important modern art sustain its novelty, at the price of
divorcing itself from any kind of general acceptability. The question is
how an undoubted document of liberation like the Eroica can later
become a potential source of self-deception and ideology, by contribut-
ing to the continuing existence of what are now in certain ways mere
illusions about the possibilities of reconciling freedom and necessity in
modernity.

At the same time, though, another reduction lurks here. Sometimes


Adorno seems to imply that freedom is so utopian (in the strict sense)
that we could only justifiably use the notion in a world in which the
dominance of the exchange principle had already been overcome.
However much we are aware of living in a commodified and adminis-
tered world—which is one key source of the drive towards aesthetic
innovation—this concentration on freedom as solely constituted by
social relations is mistaken. It derives from a renunciation of all the theo-
retical resources of the post-Kantian traditions for articulating the
nature of human autonomy, in the name of the assumption that only a
transformed totality could enable us to recognize what freedom is. This
latter assumption is, though, philosophically indefensible.

The argument against it follows from the problem of the ‘reflection


model’ of subjectivity discussed above: unless we already have some
115
immediate sense of freedom via the very fact of our self-consciousness, we
would not even recognize its instantiation in transformed socio-economic
circumstances. As Herbert Schnädelbach puts it in relation to Sartre:
‘only a being with the existential structure of being-for-itself and being-
beyond-itself can have the experience of alienation’22—and, I would
claim, only such a being can have aesthetic experience. Such experience
depends upon the subject’s ability to move beyond itself in ways which
may transform aspects of its relationship to the world. Any claim on
behalf of a theory of ideology which refuses to accept this inherent poten-
tial for freedom must offer an alternative reason for wanting to criticize
the unfreedom of an existing society at all in the first place. Without
freedom there can be no debate about aesthetics and ideology. Beech and
Roberts claim to be interested in the ‘boundaries of truth and freedom’,
although much of what we have seen so far gives rather little evidence of
what they mean, beyond a shallow appeal to hedonism.23 My concern is
precisely to show how questions raised in aesthetics offer resources for
the examination of these boundaries. For this to be the case, though, one
needs to get more things straight about why aesthetics plays this role in
modern thought. Beech and Roberts suggest that Kant is the source of
the view that judgements about art and about the world are wholly sepa-
rate. The initial question to ask here is: how are Beech and Roberts going
to establish that anything is or could be art at all?

Judgement

It is no good saying art is that which gets called art, or is, in the manner of
Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, what is defined by the ‘institu-
tion art’—the established locations in a society, such as museums, concert
halls, galleries, which validate certain objects as art— because that still
gives us no way of understanding what would make anything art at all in
the first place by being valued for its particular status.24 The point of
Kant’s position is thereby completely missed. Kant actually suggests that,
far from there being an ultimate separation between kinds of judgement,
aesthetic judgements involve what is entailed in all kinds of judgement.
Judgement is ‘the capacity to subsume under rules’, and this includes
judgements of taste. This leads to the following problem: ‘If judgement
wanted to show universally how one is to subsume under these rules, i.e.
distinguish whether something belongs under the rule or not, this could
only happen via a further rule. But because this is a rule it requires once
more an instruction by judgement, and thus it is shown to be the case that
the understanding is admittedly capable of being instructed and equipped
by rules, but that judgement is a particular talent which cannot be given
by instruction but can only be practised.’25 The talent, which is required
to prevent a regress of rules for the application of rules, is part of the ‘art’ of
‘schematism’, the ability to ‘see something as something’ which plays a
decisive role both in cognition and in aesthetic judgements.26 If there is to

22
Herbert Schnädelbach, Zur Rehabilitierung des animale rationale, Frankfurt 1992, p. 271.
23
Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 120.
24
See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Manchester 1985.
25
I. Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Frankfurt 1968, b, p. 172, a, p. 133.
26
Heidegger, of course, made this issue the basis of his early work, culminating in Being
and Time. See Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory.
116
be art at all, then, it must be related to the freedom of the subject not to
submit to the existing rules.27 These rules can only be comprehensible to
free beings who can refuse to submit to existent ways of ‘world-making’,
including the rules generated by other free beings.

Works can only be seen as works of art if we understand them in a manner


which makes them different from world objects of any other kind. The
crucial issue is therefore the relationship between the ways in which
objects can be apprehended and engaged with. In its extreme version,
Adorno’s position makes modern art which has a claim to truth precisely
into that which resists any wholesale conversion into the forms of iden-
tity—particularly the commodity form—which dominate the culture
industry, or, for that matter, Western thought as a whole conceived as
‘identity thinking’.28 Adorno is right that, without some notion of aes-
thetic autonomy, it is hard to suggest how art’s resistance to merely con-
tributing to existing unfreedom could play any role in aesthetic
experience. At the same time, Adorno’s extreme position can easily lead to
further reductions which still dominate some of the debate in this area.

Adorno’s conception depends on the idea that certain major bourgeois art
works have a claim to truth of the kind also associated, for example, with
philosophy and social theory: the works give access to aspects of the world
which would otherwise fail to be articulated. The imperative for the artist
and the critic to concern themselves with the most developed forms of aes-
thetic production, in order not to fall prey to the delusions of the culture
industry, is based on the idea that the problems within an artistic form are
themselves indications of ‘sedimented’ social content. The ineptness of so
much contemporary novel fiction, for example, is in these terms not
merely a result of the market-generated desire to appeal to a mass audi-
ence, but also an indication of immanent contradictions in a form of writ-
ing which uses particular lives to try to articulate something general about
the nature of contemporary social reality. The more the text moves in the
direction of reportage, the less its specific formal narrative constitution is
essential to its capacity to disclose the world; the more it moves away from
contact with historical material, the greater the danger of its becoming
irrelevant as a means of articulating truths about society. Because the
problem is not soluble in solely aesthetic terms, it forces one beyond the
art work into an understanding of why society gives rise to the dilemma in
question. Engagement with the work therefore becomes a means of under-
standing key aspects of the social world in which it is located. It can, how-
ever, only do this on the assumption that the ‘formal’ problems involved in
the question of the autonomous work are taken seriously. Our ability to
take such problems seriously depends upon our ability to make aesthetic
judgements, thus upon a developed aesthetic culture.

We need now, though, to be more aware that it is no longer possible sim-


ply to use the same criteria for judging ephemera as for judging art

27
As I suggest in From Romanticism to Critical Theory, one of the many advantages of
Schleiermacher’s scandalously neglected theory of art is that it sees no final difference
between aesthetic production and reception: they are merely degrees of the same activity.
28
This is the extreme position in Dialectic of Enlightenment: see Bowie, From Romanticism to
Critical Theory, ch. 9 for a more nuanced view.
117
which tries to engage with the most advanced developments in a particu-
lar aesthetic medium, which in Adorno’s terms makes it subject to criti-
cism in terms of its truth-content. Awareness of the temporality involved
in such judgements is also crucial: some art matters, and gains its truth-
content from the fact that it continues to transcend any particular con-
text; some art, however, is a form of local intervention or praxis which
loses its truth-content if demands are made on it which fail to take
account of the local nature of that praxis. It is pointless rigorously to
apply the categories of high art to much of what goes on in local cultural
praxes—although, importantly, the basic aesthetic demands and the
grounds of aesthetic failure or success in many ways remain the same. It
is, though, equally mistaken to deny that high art has a status which still
makes demands that we should not ignore. Albrecht Wellmer has
rightly suggested against Peter Bürger’s (and, by extension, Beech and
Roberts’s) idea of bringing art into the everyday life-world that ‘without
the paradigmatic creations of “great” art, in which the fantasy, the accu-
mulated knowledge and ability of obsessively specialized artists objectify
themselves, democratically universalized aesthetic production would
presumably decay into mere arts and crafts’.29

Invocation of ‘paradigmatic creations’ might seem at odds with the


increasingly sceptical and ironic temper of much contemporary thought,
which results from the awareness that appeals to anything exemplary
tend to involve a marginalization of alternatives. However, the impor-
tance of early German Romantic thought lies precisely in the way it asso-
ciates an irony which acknowledges the inherently finite and flawed
nature of all human striving for transformation with normative ideals of
the kind exemplified in what Novalis termed the ‘aesthetic imperative’
of the great works of art. The precarious balancing act involved in this
association is what progressive cultural theory must now confront, rather
than ignore. This will require a more apt theoretical apparatus than we
seem presently to possess.

The Aesthetic and the Philistine

Left-wing cultural politics has too often suffered from an exclusive orien-
tation to one of the extremes of the cultural continuum. On the one
hand, the far end of the notion of high art leads to such ruinous notions as
Adorno’s authoritarian idea of the most advanced ‘state of the material’
which all serious art must live up to, on pain of it being devoid of critical
truth potential. On the other hand, the far end of the concern with popu-
lar culture is a failure to see that art and developed judgement are insepa-
rable, and that the abolition of the aesthetic into the attitude of ‘Well,
it’s what I like’ is the swiftest path to a consumerism which has no
resources for resisting the manipulation of taste by multinational corpo-
rations and reactionary political interests. The refusal, in the name of an
often illusory cultural pluralism, to appreciate this fact is one of the most
depressing features of theories that celebrate postmodern diversity with-
out questioning whether ‘difference’ cannot too often be an ideological
form of the Same. It is at these points that the connection of the ethical
and the aesthetic needs much more attention: in this respect the Kantian
29 Albrecht Wellmer, Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne, Frankfurt 1985, p. 39.
118
idea that works of art should have claims to universality actually seems
to me inseparable from the very notion of art. We may reject a particular
claim but, without such claims, the idea that a work is art at all becomes
hard to defend. The real danger here is the false universality often attrib-
uted to the likes of Beethoven. In this case, though, the critical task
should be to show the truth of these works, not just to dismiss them as
bourgeois ideology.

Beech and Roberts suggest in relation to their favoured new approach to


questions of contemporary culture that ‘Philistines are...to paraphrase
Bourdieu, those to whom art speaks a foreign language’, and that the
‘philistine is peculiarly well placed, as the definitional other of art and aes-
thetics, to bring to bear on art and aesthetics the cost of their exclusions,
blindnesses and anxieties’.30 What, though, are these anxieties that cost so
much actually about? Death, illness, loss? Apparently not. Beech and
Roberts seem to think that we have somehow left behind the era where the
body could be the source of the fear of torment. But do they seriously think
we do not need to worry any more about facticity, and do they therefore
wish to ignore the fact that art can give a sense of temporalized transcen-
dence by articulating anxieties and thereby trying to go beyond them?
Have they never heard Bruckner’s Eighth or Mahler’s Ninth symphony
played properly? Do such works now have nothing to do with helping
temporarily transform our still thoroughly factitious being in the world,
and what gives them the right to tell me they have not? Such art is actually
both voluptuous and anxious, not regressively concerned to exclude the dis-
tressing aspects of life, as Beech and Roberts’s favoured category of ‘the
philistine’ would seem to be. Great works try to include both sides: that’s
the crucial point. They may not help in the last analysis—does any-
thing?—but they do help enough for them to have survived as living
resources for meaning in a way that little else has. A vital political fact in
all this is that, if the Left just hands over the great ‘bourgeois’ tradition to
the enemy, it not only hands over a lot of people who cannot imagine a life
without that tradition but also surrenders the semantic potential of that
tradition which can be mobilized for progressive social movements.

Much of Beech and Roberts’s position seems to be generated only by the


reading of theory. Beech and Roberts’s ‘philistine’ is, of course, basically
the ‘other’ of the ‘new aesthete’, but the ‘other’ is now (following Derrida)
really the ‘spectre’. However, realizing that a Thatcherite and Reaganite
world has thrown up real philistines, in the all too familiar sense, at every
level of society—philistines who shut down theatres and orchestras, cut
off money for music lessons for working-class kids, raise ticket prices for
‘high’ culture beyond the reach of less well-off parts of the population,
pull down Rachel Whiteread’s House, think Beethoven and trash are
‘equally valid’—Beech and Roberts make sure that we have no idea to
whom they are actually referring in this supposedly positive sense. ‘The
philistine’, which is ‘an empirical and discursive construction’ is somehow
linked to the body we aesthetes have supposedly ‘impoverished’ because of
our Protestant guilt. I find it hard to know exactly what is going on here,
but the idea that a love of Bruckner, as, presumably, ‘proper pleasure’,31 and

30
Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, pp. 125, 126.
31
Ibid., p. 126.
119
a love of great sex (‘philistine pleasure’?) are somehow at odds is the prod-
uct of a thinking that assumes the boxes established by theories determine
real life: the aesthetic here, the bodily there, and ne’er the twain shall
meet. The point is, of course, that in order to construct a supposedly radi-
cal case, Beech and Roberts have to construct a ‘straw other’—the ‘new
aesthete’—who lives via rigid divisions between the mind and the body,
the intelligible and the sensuous, and so on.

Beech and Roberts also do not seem to realize that, far from the domain
of modern art being, as they suggest, an exclusion zone, its history—
from, for instance, Beethoven’s ironic inclusion in the late works of com-
positional elements which effectively destroy much of the previous point
of the forms in which he is composing, to Kurt Schwitters’s use of bus
tickets, and beyond—has been a history of inclusion, of involving more
and more intractable material from modern society in the name of the
refusal to let art become mere culinary pleasure. If anything gets
excluded, it is actually the no longer valid aspects of the art of the past.
The modern crisis in the notion of the work of art comes about precisely
because Duchamp and others needed to question the possibility of art’s
truth to the point of the destruction of art. The vital issue is how works
of art, while just being objects, reveal and articulate aspects of modern
life which otherwise become repressed or fall into oblivion.

The Spectral Other

Like those who see art as mere ideology, Beech and Roberts effectively
claim that they have already penetrated to the heart of the aesthetic,
which is why they now think they need to offer a theory of its spectre.
This ‘definitional other’, though, traps them in the dialectical position of
being parasitic on what they wish to oppose.32 They are led to the prob-
lem familiar from the short-lived ability of works of art to be part of the
avant-garde: without what it opposes, there could be no avant-garde in
the first place, and today’s avant-garde is, if it survives, tomorrow’s tradi-
tion. Art must always rely upon the orders of significance which it
rejects, otherwise the point of its rejection is lost. In this sense there is
nothing new in Beech and Roberts’s invocation of ‘the philistine’: it
merely renames a familiar aspect of the history of modern art and its
reception. The exclusion Beech and Roberts are themselves prone to in
attributing such exclusions to the aesthetic lies in the assumption that
they already know the answer to what art can tell them.33 Why otherwise

32 I am aware that the notion of ‘spectre’ is supposed to avoid such dialectical dependence,

but I can see no way in which it can do the work Beech and Roberts wish it to without
becoming involved in the trap I suggest here.
33 Much the same objection made here to Beech and Roberts can be made to Malcolm Bull’s

essay, ‘The Ecstasy of Philistinism’, nlr 219, pp. 22-41. Bull writes of a ‘liberation from art
itself’ (p. 41) suggested by philistinism based on Nietzsche’s version of Socrates in The Birth of
Tragedy. This position presupposes that what belongs to the aesthetic can be clearly demar-
cated, and thus that one can advocate the ‘destruction of art’ (p. 40). I do not think that the
boundaries between the aesthetic and its other are either as clear or as rigid as this. If art is
linked to freedom in the way I suggest, this position—which does have the advantage of
involving serious historical reflection on the notion of philistinism—is potentially even more
reactionary than Beech and Roberts’s. Bull also shares Beech and Roberts’s idea that it is hard
to find real examples of philistines: to make a start, a list of a few choice former Tory mps would
surely suffice. Theoretical difficulties sometimes disappear in the face of the real social world.
120
do they feel the need to articulate its ‘definitional other’ (my emphasis) as
a way beyond existing theories of the aesthetic? The obvious claim
against this is that people who engage with art both as producers and
receivers always have the potential (even if it is rarely actualized) to artic-
ulate something that has failed to be articulated up to now. As such, the
idea of a ‘definitional’ other actually becomes more rigid than what it
opposes. It is worth remembering in this connection that it is those who
reject the art and aesthetics of modernism who have most often been on
the side of political reaction. Despite this, I do not wish to maintain in
this respect that there is a stable position to be taken up in these matters.
There can be times when aesthetic autonomy plays an essential function
in defending the freedom for new articulation, and there can also be con-
texts where the prioritization of the defence of aesthetic autonomy may
become mere self-indulgent ideology. Without the tension created by
the aim of aesthetic autonomy, though, this whole dimension of the sig-
nificance of art in modernity becomes lost.

It should by now be very clear in what ways I adhere to the idea, often
unfashionable on the Left, that the consigning to indifference of the
great works of the ‘bourgeois tradition’ in so much radical thinking
about art is a disastrous mistake. This is actually an everyday issue with a
clear political dimension, of precisely the kind Beech and Roberts appeal
to without giving any serious examples of what they mean. Anyone who
has been involved in the attempt, say, to persuade students who reject it
or ignore it of the value of great music or other art soon realizes that most
of the rejection comes about because the language that would allow them
access to it was never taught to them. Instead, such art is often incorpo-
rated into an image of class society, where it is basically for ‘them’, and
not ‘for the likes of us’. The fact that it is possible to overcome this resis-
tance is not a direct route to political change, but it can and does open up
whole new worlds to many people: if that is not political, I do not know
what is.

If, as Beech and Roberts themselves suggest, art is a kind of language, it


must be involved in a continuous process of redefining itself against what
is not art. It does so in the way language users try to articulate that which
resists the established resources of articulation by talking what may appear
in terms of the existing rules to be nonsense. The problem with Beech and
Roberts’s position here is that when they talk of the ‘voluptuous and prac-
tical demands of the philistine’, against which art is ‘perpetually rewrit-
ing’ its borders,34 it is not at all clear what they are referring to. They
certainly never give any useful examples. Are they, for example, actually
talking about—I am not being facetious here, merely baffled—raves,
body-piercing, designer drugs, or whatever aspect of contemporary cul-
ture is in some way transgressive (if fashionable) without, however, having
the aesthetic claim to disclose truth, characteristic of masterpieces like
Whiteread’s House? Why, though, is what they are saying so far from being
exemplified in any accessible manner? In an article in Art Monthly, Roberts
cites the ‘legacies of punk, travellers and ecological critique and the new
dance-based musics’ as part of ‘art’s passage into the everyday’.35 Quite

34
Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 127.
35
John Roberts, ‘Notes on 90s Art’, Art Monthly, no. 200, October 1996, p. 4.
121
how he wishes to draw general conclusions from these sometimes very
local (and very different) examples—ecological critique, after all, has its
roots in Romantic philosophy, which can hardly be said of dance-music—
for the broader questions of the significance of art and politics in moder-
nity escapes me.

The reason for much of Beech and Roberts’s vagueness seems once again
to be the tendency for being led by theories without establishing
whether the theories are actually in touch with what they are supposed to
render intelligible. When Beech and Roberts claim that ‘there can be no
fixed or stable character or origin for the question of aesthetic value’,36
they are just parroting another one of those Derridean shibboleths which
have been shown, by Manfred Frank, Peter Dews, myself and, increas-
ingly, many others, to rest on the Heidegger/Derrida straw man of a
monolithic ‘Western metaphysics’ grounded in an ‘originary’ Cartesian
subjectivity which dominates its Other. As I suggested above, the
Romantic conception of subjectivity, which is probably most character-
istic of thinking about the self in the modern period—think of how the
idea of a subject which is not the ground of itself plays a vital role in
modernist literature from Büchner’s Lenz to Proust’s À la recherche and
beyond—did not regard the subject as a ‘stable point of origin’ and
linked it to art for precisely this reason. Neither, for that matter, has art
generally been conceived of, except perhaps by some aesthetes in the sec-
ond half of the nineteenth century, as solely constituted in terms of disin-
terested pleasure.

While trying to locate us ‘new aesthetes’ in some repressive, antiseptic


sphere beyond dirty, but sexy philistine reality, Beech and Roberts end
up in a position which is itself largely divorced from all the historical,
social and political reasons why what art revealed mattered and might
still matter. They do so on the basis of a theory which has neither the
novelty nor the radical charge that they claim for it. Indeed, in terms of
the contemporary politics of the developed Western world, their theory
basically conspires with the enemy. The concerns of this particular new
aesthete are with the democratic availability of art—both in terms of
reception and production—which these days is once again increasingly
becoming the preserve of the dominant classes. This might appear mis-
taken. On the side of reception, ‘the Classics’ are, for example, in one
sense evidently more available, in the form of cheaper books, cds, films,
tv series of books and so on, than ever before. At the same time, the ideas
and images associated with the Classics generally locate them in a mythi-
cal past, rather than making them promises for the future which, as the
repositories of unfulfilled past hopes and wishes, can currently illumi-
nate and orient lives. Despite all its faults,37 Walter Benjamin’s insis-
tence on the need continually to redeem the past, rather than to assume
that the task is the creation of some completely new future, is a vital
reminder of what one risks by surrendering the past to the enemy. The
fact is that significant works of art make hermeneutic demands which
contemporary theory too often simply ignores or represses: hence the

36
Beech and Roberts, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, p. 127.
37
For a critique of Benjamin’s reliance on theology, see my From Romanticism to Critical
Theory, ch. 8.
122
revealingly Oedipal sense in theories like Beech and Roberts’s that
autonomous art works must now be put in their ideological place, rather
than acknowledged as continuing challenges to our self-understanding.
On the side of production, the examples of the contemporary hegemony
are legion: the effective removal of music from the curriculum of many
British schools is only one example of the reduction in possibilities for
aesthetic production that is inherent in the conception of education as
‘training’ that now dominates large parts of the political spectrum. In
relation to phenomena of this kind, suspicion of aesthetic education as a
repression of ‘philistine pleasures’ looks more and more like a luxury for
theorists who now wish to reject what others may never even get the
chance to try.

Uses and Misuses of Culture and Theory

Anyone who wishes to contribute to progressive cultural change cannot


ignore the fact that the dissemination of culture is now inextricably
bound up with market forces and mechanisms which will not disappear
in the foreseeable future, though their effects could very easily be miti-
gated if there were the political will to do so. This leads to a complex
series of choices. If one tries to establish a radically alternative concep-
tion or form of culture, one is always faced with the fact that one is both
parasitic on established culture anyway, and at the same time liable to be
at best marginal to wider social developments. Clearly, individual artists
who are radically opposed to dominant trends must take up marginal
positions, thereby risking exclusion or oblivion: to the extent that Beech
and Roberts wish to draw attention to what otherwise may be ignored in
the contemporary art scene, I have absolutely no quarrel with them,
though I doubt the validity of their evaluative framework. It is, though,
important to make heuristic distinctions between what artists may get
up to and what one can do as a theorist. Theorists must try to understand
the wider picture, and are generally ill-advised if they regard themselves
as belonging to some kind of aesthetic avant-garde. A progressive cul-
tural politics cannot merely be based on the rejection of existing high
culture, however much that culture may be distorted by the commodity
world. If one tries to argue for the use of the new technical possibilities
for the dissemination of culture in a progressive manner, both by reap-
propriating existing culture which has already proved its ability to sus-
tain its value, and by defending and interpreting artistic innovations,
one is faced with a continual battle with past and existing reactionary
appropriations. Beech and Roberts’s wider theoretical position gives few
reasons for even enjoining that battle.

It is a further serious mistake here not to recognize that some famous


works may well play the established role they do because they are simply
better than what else there is on offer. I make no apology for the lack of a
relativizing proviso here. The contemporary concentration on pluralism
of taste and on what is marginalized and excluded from dominant evalu-
ations should not lead towards an abolition of discrimination that
ignores the ineliminable role of tradition in aesthetic evaluation. If
judgements of taste cannot be just radically subjective, then they are
subject to the same possibility of argumentative validation as cognitive
and ethical judgements. This is not a speculative point: a society which
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creates more space for such argumentative exchange at all levels is a more
democratic society. There is no point in seeking to avoid the dangers
involved in cultural evaluations: how else could works like Beethoven’s,
which legitimately come to be valued, also be used as marketable com-
modities, or worse? Take an obviously extreme case: we have all probably
seen the bit of Nazi film of Furtwängler (reluctantly) conducting Beet-
hoven’s Ninth Symphony in front of Hitler. Perhaps, along with the
familiar and indispensable reflections on the modern relationship bet-
ween high culture and totalitarian politics, we ought also still to listen to
what Furtwängler actually achieved in such performances. Along with
making a very regrettable contribution to Nazi propaganda, the fact is
that his actual performances shatter the complacent surface of so many
conceptions of Viennese classical music. The performances can thereby
now still appeal, if they ever get the chance to hear them, precisely to
those who think culture should be a protest against mere surface
beauty.38 In the face of the dangerous universalizing and levelling ten-
dencies in mass culture it now seems to me important—and more feasi-
ble—to reclaim great art from its misappropriations, in the name of the
potential it offers for a more communicative and less deluded society, as
well as for straightforward aesthetic pleasure, than to spend all our time
suggesting how much it is really just a function of dominant ideologies,
or represses the ‘philistine’. The concentration camp commandant who
listens to Schubert must continue to haunt us, but that can be seen as a
reason to free Schubert from the ideological sentimentalization he was
subject to then and now, rather than just to regard his music as part of
the failure of bourgeois culture to prevent barbarism. One can, simply,
expect too little as well as too much of such culture. There is indeed
nothing to say that great art has per se any necessary moral or other
improving effects, but that is a reason for a vigilance which tries to
oppose self-evidently ideological approaches to art, not a counsel of
despair. There are no easy positions here, but that should not lead to the
illusion that only a position which completely rejects the bourgeois tra-
dition is politically apt.

While questions of art and the aesthetic may offer crucial new ways of
understanding where we are, they are, more often than not, unlikely to
be immediate motivational factors in major political transformations.
My desire to reclaim the understanding of traditions of modern art may
sound wildly optimistic, but the first step is realistic, given the limita-
tion just suggested. One should demand of approaches to aesthetic ques-
tions that they not contribute to further cultural impoverishment via the
levelling of discrimination characteristic of some postmodern theorizing
and, of course, even more characteristic of the consumer world itself. In
the view I am proposing, then, the semantic resources in great art require
protection from misappropriation and those resources potentially feed
into progressive cultural politics, even if they may not play a direct role
in effecting change. Significant art—including popular culture—is
often most important as a means of articulating or sustaining the hopes,
dreams, repressed tensions, and symbolic resources in society which are

38
Try, for example, Furtwängler’s recordings of Brahms Symphonies during and after the
War, which emphatically ‘rewrite the borders’ of our understanding of Brahms’ relation-
ship to the Classical and Romantic traditions.
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often not articulated and are ignored by the dominant forms of commu-
nication and education. This can, for example, initially be just at the
level of individual feelings which are better articulated through music—
though there we can again encounter the concentration camp comman-
dant—but it must also be at the level of revealing possibilities for
organizing recalcitrant, stale or rejected material into new forms which
can feed into cognitive and ethical forms of understanding, or at the crit-
ical level of a challenge to the crass stupidity of much of the commodity
world. The freedom involved in both aesthetic reception and production
of the kind at issue here is not freedom for voluptuous bodily pleasures
‘without guilt’; it is instead the ability imaginatively to engage with and
transcend constraints, in ways which feed into so many aspects (includ-
ing erotic aspects) of our dealings with others. It is, therefore, connected
to issues of communication, meaning and truth.

An essential precondition of all these issues, absent from Beech and


Roberts’s position, is, then, that the issues really only matter if art and
aesthetics are, as Heidegger, Adorno, Gadamer and other heirs to the
Romantic tradition maintain, essentially connected to what I term the
‘culture of truth’.39 Making the ‘philistine’ the spectre of the aesthetic has
the further serious disadvantage that it obscures how in modernity the
aesthetic is, to appropriate Beech and Roberts’s questionable terminology
for a moment, the spectre of the rigidly cognitive. The emergence of
Romantic aesthetics was connected to the origins of the idea of ‘nihilism’,
to the rise of what has become the world of scientism and to the resultant
metaphysics which now assumes everything about our access to the world
is either ultimately digitally encodeable or describable in the reductionist
terms of contemporary physicalism.40 This metaphysics may well be, as
the work of Heidegger, Adorno and others suggests, in some way con-
nected to the reduction of use-value to exchange-value inherent in the
commodity structure, but it is not simply a function of that reduction. It is
vital to differentiate the effects of different kinds of systematic reduction in
modernity, otherwise we end up with a passive sense that what is happen-
ing is, like Heidegger’s ‘history of being’, wholly beyond the direct influ-
ence of human action.41 We may these days be more aware of the limits of
the effectiveness of political intervention, but theories which merely add
to the sense that nothing can be done effectively conspire with the Right’s
mythological claims about the supposed inability of the state to solve
social problems. If the essential concern of radical cultural politics is with
‘world-making’ we now need convincing resources, new and old, for cre-
atively criticizing a world which will indubitably be made more and more
on the basis of the information revolution and of physicalist conceptions
of science.

In the unbelievably arid terms of much contemporary debate, the choice


here has recently come to be seen as between the crude scientism exempli-
fied by Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins, and a form of desperately
defensive theology that is regarded by some as the only hope of overcom-

39
Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory, ch. 9.
40
See Andrew Bowie, ‘Romanticism and Technology’, Radical Philosophy, no. 72, July-
August 1995; and From Romanticism to Critical Theory.
41
From Romanticism to Critical Theory, ch. 9 and the conclusion.
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ing the nihilism of modern materialist science. That this is a very bad
alternative was already apparent to German Idealist and Romantic
philosophers, and is a further reason for taking the history of philosophy
much more seriously than Beech and Roberts do. At their best, the
Idealist and Romantic philosophers saw no necessary contradiction be-
tween the validity in their own terms of the claims of natural science and a
non-reductive view of nature that did not rely upon dogmatic theology.42
Art was for them the locus of a self-understanding which helped us to
come to terms with our place within a nature that was not reducible to
what science can tell us about it. The two most evident theoretical sources
of resistance to the assumptions of those who see the world in scientistic
or theological terms are, as the Idealists and Romantics realized, the irre-
ducibility of subjects with a capacity for individual judgement and for
non-rule-bound innovation to objectifying theories, and the meaningful-
ness of what those subjects can produce that cannot finally be theoret-
ically explained.

The history of modern thought has in many ways been a history of the
gradual subversion of Enlightenment hopes for human autonomy. This
has, especially in recent theory, been seen, on the one hand, in terms of
post-Darwinian—and sometimes Marxist—attempts to subordinate
subjectivity to scientific naturalism, but, on the other, of the claim that
the very dominance of scientific naturalism is itself the result of the his-
tory of a subject which tries to be lord and master of nature. Ways
beyond this disastrous theoretical choice between the abolition of the
potential for autonomy of the subject in the name of science, and the
simultaneous return of that subject as the source of the scientific domi-
nation of the nature of which it is only a part, have yet to be developed in
a politically effective way. Some of the necessary philosophical and polit-
ical resources for overcoming this bad alternative are, though, already
implicit in the wider philosophical implications of the history of aesthet-
ics, a history which some on the Left have still adequately to understand.

42 Some of what Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Novalis, Schlegel, Schleiermacher and others

say just repeats old errors or produces new ones, but if one is to escape the merely histori-
cist tendency of much work on their philosophy, one needs to look for the moments where
they open new perspectives on the future, not for the ways in which they are merely part of
their era. The new perspectives often only become fully apparent when an idea they adum-
brated comes to play a major role in subsequent theory. The contemporary philosophical
interest in their work has come about precisely because the work has proved to be durable,
by posing questions which have returned to haunt philosophy today. Neither in the arts,
nor in philosophy does tradition just mean repetition.
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