Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism

Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism

Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism

Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism

Synopsis

Paul Crowther overcome the antagonisms of recent debates about postmodernism to examine the relation between art and politics, artistic creativity, and sublimity and the postmodern sensibility.

Excerpt

As its title suggests, this text addresses both problems of aesthetics, and of contemporary culture. Its basic strategy is to clarify the nature of the latter by investigating the former. To set the scene for this, I shall make some preliminary observations about the relation between modern and postmodern culture, and then about the nature of aesthetics.

The first stirrings of Modernism can be traced to new patterns of production inaugurated by the industrial revolution. At the heart of these is a single phenomenon—the division of labour. In the productive processes which embody this relation, artefacts are not made by a single producer. Rather, the process of production is rigidly compartmentalized into stages and tasks, which are assigned to different individuals. This division of labour brings with it a quantum leap of efficiency. Likewise in the sphere of knowledge and culture. From the late eighteenth century (notably in the work of Kant), attempts are made to radically separate different forms of knowledge and experience from one another: to separate, say, metaphysical thinking from scientific method, or aesthetic experience from ethical judgement. By isolating and defining what is unique and distinctive to each mode of knowledge and experience, such modes can then be understood or pursued all the more efficiently.

Something of this impulse also finds its way into art in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the form of a tendency to emphasize the importance of formal values at the expense of overt narrative content. This, of course, reaches its high point with the rise of non-objective art. Here—according to its apologists—art reaches a stage of 'autonomy'. Its production is motivated and justifiable in purely artistic terms. It is no longer dependent upon factors—bound up with social utility—which are external to art. The basic impulse of Modernism, therefore, is optimistic. By dividing labour and modes of knowledge and experience into distinctive and separate segments, the human species' control and understanding of the world is immeasurably advanced. Indeed, the possibility of unlimited progress, and (given time) ultimate emancipation from want and ignorance is opened up.

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