Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics

By Paul Mattick | Go to book overview

5

THE RATIONALIZATION OF ART

"We are in the presence of a work of art only when it has no preponderant instrumental use, and when its technical and rational organization are not preeminent." 1 These words seem self-evident to their author, George Kubler, because they constitute a restatement of a fundamental conception of modern aesthetics. The most celebrated early appearance of this conception is Kant's, in the Critique of Judgment of 1791. By tying the idea of "aesthetic experience" to "disinterestedness" Kant set aesthetic value in opposition both to morality and to instrumental rationality. The aesthetic enjoyment of art (as of nature) is an end in itself, requiring no justification by reference to further purposes. For Kant, similarly, artistic production is "play, in other words, an occupation that is agreeable on its own account." 2 It represents an exercise of personal autonomy, unconstrained by any external goal such as those enforced on the general run of producers by the discipline of wage labor, or on their masters by other commercial interests.

This view was not only distant from the reality of artistic production, which if not "paid for according to a definite standard" was (as it remains) a "mercenary occupation" to the extent that the artist could make it one. It was in contradiction with the actual use of art for a variety of moral, political, and commercial purposes from the Renaissance to the present day. What Kant's writing expressed, however-and this is one of the reasons for its continuing centrality to the discourse of aesthetics-was the idea of art as the embodiment of "spirit," in contrast to the "material," that is, economic, orientation dominant in modern life. In Hegel's characteristic terms, art is a way "of bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit." 3

1 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 16. The text continues by associating with this idea another essential element of the modern idea of art: "In short, a work of art is as useless as a tool is useful. Works of art are as unique and irreplaceable as tools are common and expendable."

2 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, tr. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), p. 170.

3 G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art, tr. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 7.

-74-

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