The New Aestheticism

Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press
viii + 242 pp., £45.00 (hb), £15.99 (pb)

The practice of criticism — undoubtedly one of society’s most valuable ‘applied philosophies’ — can be understood as a way of ‘seeing through’ things. When a critic reviews a play, she ‘sees through’ the performance and reports upon its faithfulness to various things like the text, the author’s intention, contemporary dramaturgy, or some other standard. Similarly, when a social commentator addresses, say, the ‘war on terror’, she ‘looks through’ the dense fabric of images and messages constellated around the official or public idea of the ‘war’. While such ‘seeing through’, where it occurs, is surely to be located at the heart of any healthily functioning society, we do also face a problem in connection with it: what do you look at when you see through everything? The problem for ‘critics’, here, is more apparent for academics in ‘aesthetic’ disciplines than in historical, political and ethical ones. When the ‘moral critic’, for example, ‘sees through’ an action to some or other system of behaviour, what she is or may be trying to do is to show how that action or system is adequate or not adequate to some set of moral precepts. Whether these precepts are understood to be objective, consensual or merely conventional doesn’t really matter that much; what matters is that they can be ‘seen through’ with a reasonable degree of cognitive reliability and a reasonable sense of a specific end in sight. In aesthetic disciplines, however, the problem is more acute: what is it, after all, that we are really looking for in art and literature?

One of the answers to this has been to make more concrete our idea of the object of such criticism. Academic criticism, in this way, has become a way of ‘seeing through’ painting, literature and music in order to show the relationship between the formal or intentional structures of artworks and more cognitively ‘concrete’ things like ideology, historical social practice, the class struggle, gender, the psyche, and even just plain old philosophy. The list grows and changes as the interests of the various social groups change, but the primary model remains the same: you try to show what is ‘really’ at stake by showing how what is formed and presented in an artwork reflects the ‘concrete’ structure you are seeking to ‘unmask’. And such a practice is all very well; but what, one is entitled to ask, happens to ‘the aesthetic’ in all of this? Isn’t the aesthetic why all these things were made in the first place?

This is the question that a number of critics have felt entitled to ask over the years, and the growing frequency with which it nowadays crops up has prompted something of an answer in the form of a multi-authored collection of essays called The New Aestheticism …

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