Susan Buck-Morss teaches political philosophy and social theory in the Department of Government at Cornell University. She is widely recognized as a leading scholar of the work of the Frankfurt School, especially the cultural criticism of T. W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Her book, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1989), examines the unpublished notes and observations generated by Benjamin during the later part of his life on the experience of urban modernity and consumer culture in the nineteenth century. Buck-Morss's recent essays-including "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered"; "The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe"; and "Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display"'l-have set out a provocative new interpretation of the status of the aesthetic within contemporary culture. Buck-Morss has returned to the term's early definition to rethink the aesthetic in relationship to somatic or bodily knowledge under the impact of modernity. In response to a recent October questionnaire on "visual culture," she writes of the "liquidation of art as we have known it" under the proliferation of techniques of reproduction, and calls for a new critical analysis of the "image as a social object" in which theory itself becomes a visual practice.2 The following interview took place through a series of telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges during July 1996. In it Buck-Morss discusses her recent work on the aesthetic and its significance for art making.
Grant Kester: Over the past several years there has been a growing interest in the art world in reclaiming "beauty" and visual pleasure as "moral and political" concepts, in part because they are understood to resist analytic reduction and to provide access to what one critic describes as "bodily responses" that derive from "out of awareness."3 Although it is not always clearly enunciated, these works depend on an evaluative framework derived from early modem aesthetic philosophy that defines beauty in terms of the relationship between the individual subject (identified by personal "taste") and the concept of an ideal society, united by a common language (e.g., Kant's Gemeinsinn or Shaftesbury's sensus communis). When considered in light of this tradition, the question of beauty hinges on attributing a transcendent status to modes of experience that are based on historically contingent modes of cultural and political domination (based on class, race, gender, and so on). Your writing on the visual and on aesthetics seems to be particularly conscious of this tradition, yet you are also working to reclaim or refashion the concept of the aesthetic. Could you talk a bit about the importance of the aesthetic, beauty, and visual pleasure in your own research?
Susan Buck-Morss: I take seriously Walter Benjamin's thesis in the "Artwork" essay on the liquidation of art.4 He is quite insistent that art as we know it is coming to an end-although there are many readers of the essay (including, regularly, my students) who refuse to see what he is saying. It is not just a question of the loss of "aura" of the artwork. Benjamin is arguing that by the mid-twentieth century making art in the bourgeois sense is no longer tenable. Bourgeois art has always been a commodity, bought and sold on the market, so the commodification of art is not the point. His argument is, rather, that the technological conditions of production have so thoroughly blurred the boundary between "art" and cultural objects generally that its special, separate status cannot be maintained. Engineering has challenged the special status of architecture, journalism that of literature, photography that of painting, cinema that of theater-and he is optimistic about these developments. They led him to affirm the potential of mass culture, its ability to democratize not only access to culture, but cultural production itself.
I think that museums today are conserving not only art objects, but the art idea-past its time, so to speak. …