Modernist reechantments II: From aestheticized politics to the artwork

By Wheeler, Brett R | German Quarterly, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Modernist reechantments II: From aestheticized politics to the artwork


Wheeler, Brett R, German Quarterly


[...] art was not to play an ambassadorial role but a prophetic one; not to be a series of encounters in homogenized aesthetic space but to point to new spaces altogether. Still, while the works are almost pathetically insufficient for the ambitions of their makers, there is something touching in the idea of seeing them linked up next to one another, all passion spent. Given the history of the century of which abstract art is the most distinctive expression, this is not a bad kind of ending. If we could all coexist politically in this way, art would after all have served a model for a better form of life.

-Arthur Danto

Art and Secularization

The specter of aestheticized politics has long haunted Germany. But the spook was not always such a demon. In its youth, indeed, the union of art and politics excited a vast spectrum of intellectuals with a promise of redemption from the cold rationality of a disenchanted world. Sociologists, philosophers, even jurists and artists discerned in the work of art the instantiation of an original unity of human agents-a political community untroubled by fragmentation, mediated relations, and politics absent moral agency.

To reevaluate the historical significance of a union of aesthetics and politics, it needs to be placed at some safe distance from discourses in which it is averred prima facie. From here we can critically reevaluate the historical validity of an aesthetic reenchantment of politics augured by Max Weber's famous dictum about art: "Sie uberninimmt die Funktion einer, gleichviel wie gedeuteten, innerweltlichen Erlosung."1 The redemption once anticipated by religious worldviews was now preserved in art. This was consonant with the demands of a modern world-a secular form of integration and an immanent rather than transcendent medium of interaction. Thus emerged the alternative political modality proffered by the aesthetic operations of the artwork. The sole alternative to liberal adherence to anonymous norms or regulations was not "irrationalism."

Many voices joined in the chorus for a renewal of an aesthetic alternative. Across the Rhine, Henri Bergson contended that, in the modern world, humanity had in part forgotten what he called an "aesthetic faculty" that existed "along with normal perception."2 This faculty allowed access via intuition to the more fundamental intentionality of the world rather than the conceptual thinking of science or normative structures. It also suggested a version of autonomy defined not by the free adherence to rules championed by Kant's practical reason but to a spontaneous iteration of self in unregulated action. When applied intersubjectively and in concert with others, it suggested a form of politics that did not provide predicates for behavior or an anterior consensus on what is good or right that would then be institutionalized in norms or laws or a state apparatus.

Further, Thomas Nipperdey, Wolf Lepenies, and others have resurrected a sociological legacy that begins with Weber and evinces great intimacy with the cultural and artistic crises of European modernity and not only with its social and economic manifestations. The aesthetic conceptualization of politics was no less a challenge to social scientists than it was to cultural critics. Arguably, indeed, the whole field of sociology in Germany grew up around the generational shifts in political self-conceptions between the Grunderzeit and the period around the turn of the century.3 The crisis of liberalism and the subsequent aestheticization of political forms were definitive of modernist intellectual and cultural movements of many types. Hence, while many have seen sociology as the scientific discourse most at odds with the aesthetic tradition, it may be more accurate to see them as both concomitant and even cooperative undertakings seeking to revise the definition of political life after 1890 in light of new structural demands. Max Weber, Leopold von Wiese, Georg Simmel, and Ferdinand Tonnies were at least as concerned as were Wilhelm Dilthey, Ludwig Rubiner, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal with the decline of interpersonal politics and ethics-of the associations of individuals organizing a common life and a common self-conception. …

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