Learning from Aesthetics

Article excerpt

Old Masters and New Lessons

In the Aesthetic State everything-even the tool which serves-is a free citizen, having equal rights with the noblest; and the mind, which would force the patient mass beneath the yoke of its purposes, must here first obtain its assent. -Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1792'

The essays in this issue of Art Journal explore some of the complex meanings generated by the concept of the aesthetic within contemporary art and culture. The contributors pursue the aesthetic through a range of sites and domains: from the slivered corpse of Joseph Jernigan floating in the ether of cyberspace, to the multimedia spectacle of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to the creation of wall-sized digital montages in London's Docklands. There is a common interest throughout in expanding the conceptual scope of the aesthetic beyond the sanctioned domain of the solitary artist and work of art to include a range of practices and conditions that inform everyday life.

The idea for this issue began with my interest in the much heralded "return" to beauty in art making and art criticism a few years ago. This movement was catalyzed by Dave Hickey's influential book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993) and soon grew into a torrent of interviews, special issues of magazines, and assorted commentaries.2 Hickey's book, and the general interest in beauty that followed from it, did much to refocus the attention of artists, critics, and art historians on the sensual and somatic dimension of aesthetic experience, which had been neglected under the arid regime of the "anti-aesthetic." In responding to this neglect, however, many of the proponents of beauty seem to have abandoned in turn some of the valuable insights into the contingency of the aesthetic provided by critical theory and postmodern art practice during the last decade and a half. Thus the "ground" of beauty, as Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson have noted, has all too often been ceded to those who speak on behalf of the body and the aesthetic from a highly traditional, and in some cases even conservative, point of view.3 The essays herein seek a return to the aesthetic that preserves its full complexity as a cultural, political, and sensual form of experience. This has led many of the contributors to reexamine the origins of the aesthetic in early modern philosophy. What they have found there is a concept of aesthetic knowledge that is rooted in both the private body and the body politic. In fact, it is in the very nature of the aesthetic that it is located at the intersection between the experience of subjective autonomy and the subjectpositions provided by a dominant culture.

Hickey's book did much to reignite interest in the powerful visual experience provided by the work of art, but his argument loses its focus at precisely the point at which this experience engages with broader forms of discursive knowledge and public subjectivity. Hickey begins his book by evoking a nightmarishly Orwellian scenario in which a politically correct thought police dominate a well-funded network of "alternative" art spaces. This liberal elite, painfully out of touch with the vox populi of good old-fashioned bodily experience, have shackled the subversively beautiful art object in the basement in order to satisfy their fiendish desire to improve and infantilize the museum-going public. Hickey establishes a curious parallel between the alternative arts sector and the world of private galleries and auction houses. Thus, a "massive civil service" of arts administrators in charge of a vast apparatus of "publicly funded" exhibition spaces is juxtaposed to a "handful" of beleaguered dealers and gallery owners, who, if somewhat too ready to "nibble canapes on the Concorde," are at least honest about their relationship to the market and are more than willing to embrace the ambiguous pleasures of aesthetic desire.4 The fact that this characterization could be persuasively advanced at a time when literally dozens of nonprofit exhibition spaces, publications, and media centers were being forced to close owing to drastic funding cuts and conservative political attacks suggests the emotional power of Hickey's underlying message for many in the art world. …