Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics

By Paul Mattick | Go to book overview
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The set of social practices we call "art" is a phenomenon of the society that gave itself the name "modern." Appreciation of products of the arts in the premodern sense of the term (as craft) is seemingly to be found in earlier European, and many other, cultures, and the beginnings of something like the modern conception were already visible in the theory and practice of the cinquecento arti del disegno. However, as art historian P. O. Kristeller emphasized in a classic essay, "the system of the five major arts, which underlies all modern aesthetics and is so familiar to us all, is of comparatively recent origin and did not assume definitive shape before the eighteenth century." 1 One may say even that the conception of art which contemporary use of the word takes for granted was not fully evolved before the later nineteenth century, and perhaps not until the "formalism" of the twentieth, with its transcendent aesthetic centered on the autonomously meaningful object. Nonetheless, the eighteenth-century birth of aesthetics as a discipline concerned with the theory of art and nature as objects of appreciation may be taken as marking the crystallization of a field of activities, concepts, and institutions that has since played a leading role in social life.

Given that modern society has been based like none other in history on commerce, it is a striking paradox that, in discussion of the arts from the eighteenth century to the present, "commercial" has been a synonym for "low." In the same way, "mass" has been a derogatory term for culture in a globally integrated social order founded on mass production and consumption. Even a Marxist critic like Clement Greenberg in 1939, who described the artistic avantgarde as attached to the capitalist ruling class "by an umbilical cord of gold," at the same time characterized the mass-cultural counterpart to that avant-garde as the commercialism to which he gave the German name of kitsch. 2 The ideological importance of this conception of art can be seen in the almost reflex

1 P. O. Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts," in his Renaissance Thought II (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), p. 165.

2 Clement Greenberg, "Avant-garde and kitsch," in his Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 8.


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Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics


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