Bourgeois Beauty and Bourgeois RelativismBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
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.
Naturally, the works themselves are transformed in this subordination. The great mass of Western persons now live in a poppy dream of consumption and repose; the “entertainment” they imbibe comes brilliantly adapted for digestion, distraction, and a speedy market of evanescence and novelty. Meanwhile, the bohemian and “high” art-consuming elites make use of obscurities to flatter their sense of political enlightenment and as expressions of a very fragile form of cultural power. Supposedly politically “conscious” art serves to confirm the latest feminist or “ethnic” cause—not because anyone looks at it and is changed, but rather, its presence in mostly empty public space gives testimony to the virtue of those corporations or universities who sponsor it. Elsewhere, austere rehashes of an earlier age’s love of abstraction, or pornographic titillations, more truly attract elite audiences, who like to be reminded of their winnowing, ascetic sensibilities while also having their generally unmastered sensuality pandered to and “affirmed.” The rise of homosexual-themed art seems to accomplish all of the above. If artworks in every age have served instrumental ends, the ends in ours are attenuated and debased compared even to the vain adornments that artists provided sovereigns in the early days of the modern absolute state. In those days, artists proclaimed (and so, subtly admonished) their patrons to be better men than they actually were; our age flatters its elites by telling them they are just fine indulging whatever desires they might feel so long as they pepper it with austere gestures and make donations to virtuous third-world causes.
As might be expected from such remarks, I wish to argue for a restored sense of the philosophy and practice of the fine arts as bound up inexorably with the reality of beauty as one of the transcendental properties of being. Rather than forwarding this claim in mere abstract theory, I shall situate it historically and provide brief descriptions of the thought of two thinkers who have best grasped different dimensions of the function of art and beauty, and their mutual necessity in the modern age.
The greatest mind of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno spent much of his life in study of art’s truth in the age of ideology and Enlightenment. His account of the function of art is intensively historical and sociological and yet stands in decisive opposition to the historicism and “bourgeois relativism” that obscure or soften the difficult vision of truth art can sometimes open. The vertiginous turning of his dialectical theory of art is interesting in its own right as a byzantine refinement of Marxist historical materialism, but it also merits attention because of its explanatory power regarding the difficulties of modern art and its implications for why postmodern art owes a debt to the modern and yet is an incoherent falling off from it as well. He offers us an account of art that likely reflects the terms in which many modern artists have conceived it in their practice, and yet, crucially, his aesthetic theory refuses to loosen art’s clasp on either truth or, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. Moreover, he locates art as a reality bound to, but distinct from, any society’s ideology and rehabilitates the medieval notion of art as derived from the intelligibility of the cosmos, as a reflection and imitation of the “Book of Nature.”
I shall then turn to an early treatise of the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. While Maritain was prolific as a philosopher of art and beauty for much of his life, his Art and Scholasticism (1920) and The Frontiers of Beauty—two essays eventually gathered and published as one volume—offer the single most concise and suggestive account of these matters I know. If much of Adorno’s writing is retrospective, trying to understand the currents of modern art after most of them had run their course, Maritain’s writings are contemporary with the developments they seek to explain. Indeed, the power of this early book is partly lodged in Maritain’s almost polemical campaigning for his contemporaries to understand their work differently than they actually did. It is a work of philosophy that would reinterpret apparent historical contingencies into a more permanent language—without, for all that, losing sight of the historical transformations of art from culture to culture or age to age. Adorno and Maritain alike both saw modern art as having achieved an unprecedented degree of “spiritualization,” a consciousness of its autonomy and its function to open up the flesh of everyday life and discover truth in that mortal wound. Their claims merit our attention not primarily as theoretical expressions of the modernist sensibility, but as accounts of art and beauty that cannot be laid by and that, in fact, are as adequate for our purposes as they were to those of some decades past.