Bourgeois Beauty and Bourgeois Relativism

Devon, PA.  For those FPR readers interested in keeping up with my ongoing series, Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, the third and fourth parts have appeared on First Principles.  The concluding, fifth part should appear early next month.

Part III begins by setting out the conditions against which the series argues and with a prospectus explaining why attention to the thought of Theodor W. Adorno and Jacques Maritain is invaluable for all persons concerned with the indifferentism, relativism, and ugliness of contemporary culture (including the ugliness of what our children –well, not mine — are taught in school):

To speak, in contemporary society, of art and beauty in the same sentence, much less as realities integrally involved with one another, is to risk being laughed at. Perhaps Hans-Georg Gadamer was the first to theorize systematically how we must understand the aesthetic as a category of being or a mode of analysis independent of any talk of the beautiful, but his argument was founded on, and in redress of, the suspicion popular since the eighteenth century that beauty is a mere matter of subjective feeling or opinion; and so also were the fine arts believed to be, but they belonged to a different class of subjective phenomena. As such, chatter about beauty could be cast off as either manipulative rhetoric for the seduction of women or the expression of vain, vague, nostalgic longings for rustic landscapes, while talk of the aesthetic could remain serious—indeed, humorless—even as it grew impermeable to rational explanation and debate. We could trace a historical graph of the past couple centuries showing that the falling fortunes of the idea of beauty bear an inverse relation to the ever more lofty or “professionalized” reputation of art and aesthetics: a yawning separation so great that the advent of cultural studies has made possible serious formal discussion, subsidized by extensive bureaucratic institutions, of some very unserious “art,” during which any reference to the standards or reality of beauty would be, at best, a cause of embarrassment and, at worst, occasion for an intricately formulated debunking of one more “bourgeois ideology.”

The consequences of this division and dismissal of art and beauty proliferate. We observe, for instance, the strange congruity of our culture’s suspicion of any substantive claims about the beautiful with its increasing, everyday ugliness in architecture, urban planning, worship, speech, and manners. And we note, as well, the still further division of art into such purely modern groupings as “mass culture,” “popular art,” and high or “elite” art. One cannot help but think that we abet the exacerbation of the former consequence in denying to ourselves a public language to describe that with which we cannot possibly be content; in a fashion typical of modern rationality, we resolve our discontent by rendering it mute, and we “mute” it by pretending it is unreal and by denying it a vocabulary with any moral force. Similarly, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the radical division of the arts into the “entertainment industry,” or “mass culture,” and the stuff still taught in schools, supported by nonprofits and the State, and collecting dust in museums and pretentious wine-sipping stares in the galleries of Soho, amounts to something other than the natural hierarchical division of artworks into lesser and greater, or even simple and difficult. Rather, artworks in the view of our society have lost their ontological integrity in being denied a foundation or reality in beauty, and so have been entirely subordinated to diverse instrumental uses.

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