Bourgeois Beauty and Bourgeois Relativism

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.

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4 comments on this post.
  1. Bourgeois Beauty and Bourgeois Relativism | Front Porch Republic « Art and Life:

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  2. D.W. Sabin:

    At this juncture, it is dinner time and La Cave de la Obstrepereppi is filled with cigar smoke to an extent that the dog is beginning to sneeze as she snores and so I can’t wait to read this all later, when the air is cleared and the dog is freed from my pernicious influences. We can see you have been busy Wilson, productively so. The dog though, and dinner pulls me away…..dammit. Seems to me at first graze that some of my longstanding questions for you just might be answered at last. Patience is a damned virtue…or a virtue damned?

    “….to open up the flesh of everyday life and discover truth in that mortal wound”. Clyfford Still painted this phrase once, and I liked it a lot.

  3. D.W. Sabin:

    This is a fine series …..not only does it identify the primary culprit of unhinged Enlightenment excesses: a “rebuke of enchantment”, it provides a compelling slant on the art of modernism… and its “primordial shudder”.

    Though I don’t agree with Adorno’s aversion to Jazz as simply a music of non-conformism…it too has that “primordial shudder” as well as no small degree of musical scholarship but the comments upon “Nature Lovers” and landscape painting as a sign of “bad conscience” are extremely illuminating. Yesterday, viewing the Hudson River Paintings @ the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the son and I were marveling at the seeming exaggerations of landscapes,….. particularly Hudson Valley scenes and New England Mountains as grand as the Rockies…. and I could not resolve exactly why this might be the case. The landscapes themselves are wonderful enough not to make them grander than they are. Adorno’s suspicions ably answer the question. What else might compel their embellishment besides a certain guilty overcompensation? After all, they were painting when it was becoming painfully clear that for all industrialism’s glories, it came with a profound dark side. So too with the Man As Cancer brigades.

    A great series, looking forward to Part V.

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