john dewey / art as experience

September 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

john dewey art as experience

In the first and second chapters of his 1934 book Art as Experience, “The Live Creature” and “Having an Experience,” the American philosopher John Dewey begins to lay down his aesthetic theory with a primary emphasis on experience. Dewey wastes no time cutting to what he sees as a central problem with aesthetic theory. Common misconceptions hold that aesthetics and artworks are distinctly separate, and that art and daily experience are held apart. This binary way of approaching the activities and practices of art needs to be avoided to make an appeal for the primacy of experience. The aim of this paper will be to explicate Dewey’s implicit claim that letting go of the binary distinction of art as separate from everyday experience, will allow for a more invigorating approach to aesthetics that benefits our understanding of art, aesthetics, and experience. Detailing these benefits takes us through a few of Dewey’s arguments that make room for a view of art that speaks to the quality of appreciation, rather than seeking a staid text-book definition of art’s value and meaning. We will conclude with an assessment of the strength of Dewey’s position with a nod to the art making process itself.

What are Dewey’s reasons offered for art’s power to change people? (A-α) Dewey’s aesthetics begins with the way that we as living creatures experience the world. When artworks are set in a museum or gallery space, they are isolated from the day to day lives of viewers. In this way, an artwork becomes cut off from its origins, its functions, and from the ways in which it was created. Refined institutional isolation creates an unnecessary distance from the artwork and its audience. Dewey’s stated task, then, is to “…restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events…”[1] We must be careful to note that Dewey is not suggesting that art needs to be taken out of museums, or that his is a overt critique of institutions. Instead, his position is simply to look at the ways in which we can let a museum, or gallery setting, get in our way of experiencing and understanding the artworks.

It is surprising, if not radical, that instead of choosing to talk about art objects, Dewey emphasizes the experiences behind the objects, as well as the way we experience the artworks themselves. Art must be seen as a way that humans interact with the world. For Dewey, focus on the experiential takes art from being a simple object, to being a complex of interactions in the world from which it was created. We intuitively know that life, creativity, innovation, and discovery are distilled into artistic expressions, yet we need someone like Dewey to remind us of this.

Incredibly, art and the experience of it (aesthetics), take on a central place within Dewey’s total philosophy. “Dewey opts to select aesthetic experience as his primary instance of meaning…”[2] As mentioned above, there is a long standing tradition of demarcating, and partitioning off, of artistic objects into the rarified space of museums and gallery spaces. All of this begs the question (A-β) what in people is affected, and how, in Dewey’s embrace of experience? Dewey wishes to obviate the everyday demarcation of art as aloof, cold and distant, to stake a claim for the primary importance of experience. Not only does Dewey’s idea promise to bridge the gap between art and an experience, but also, by implication, he offers a means by which to put us back into contact with the ways in which experience contextualizes and enriches life, only if we are keen enough to take notice of art’s dynamic presence aesthetically. Taking aesthetics out of the stringent realm of contemplation into the world of lived experience, allows for experience to speak for itself. Dewey’s refreshing insistence on finding equilibrium, harmony and rhythm of experience’s confrontation with tension, speaks to the inherently imaginative course of artistic practice. Hence, we are put in a position to appreciate the quality of the ways in which we encounter, not only art, but life itself.

But what kind experience is worth taking notice of?—is it just any experience? Although, all of life is composed of a continuous stream experiential comings and goings, Dewey chooses to emphasize what he calls a “consummatory” [3] experience, whereby a given activity is seen as whole, rather than fragmented parts that consist of interruptions, or even ambivalence. Emphasis is given to a complete event that holds together without a distracted falling apart, e.g. writing an essay, carving a sculpture, printing a complicated broadsheet, enjoying a concert, &c. Generally speaking, we tend to call these events an experience, instead of just experiencing them. This subtle point is what Dewey wishes us to notice as aesthetical, and again this has to do with the quality of the experiential.

Here, we could ask about (A-γ) the benefits and detriments of art for the larger common good, found in Dewey’s aesthetics. Dewey writes of taking notice of experience with a recognition that life is full of deeply felt connections with our environment, made evident in our earnest (and aesthetic) efforts to overcome resistance, “Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.”[4] When the past is made to reawaken the resonant possibility of the present moment, the future is no longer a mundane continuation of the past—art takes us to these epiphanies. Past, present, and future coalesce into a recognized whole. Attuned experience shows us that the past harmonizes with the future in the present moment. A way of moving forward that favors the possibility of what can be, rather than what should be, reawakens our minds to an affirmation of life. Such experiences lead us to commune with the artistic and the aesthetics of life as exemplary examples.

Detriment would have to be found in the negative outcome of the above ideas, for example, when we continue to reinforce the status-quo of art as a vaunted intellectual practice. Experience too, is obscured by the contemporary infatuation with multi-tasking. Doing too many things at once quickly reduces experience to hastily drawn out conclusions with distracted imprecise attention. This is what Dewey calls “anesthetic,” when we take shallow and cursory notice of events and conclusions, “things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift.”[5] So much of life is fettered away in this anesthetic mode, including art appreciation. Often, if the art doesn’t offer up its message fast enough, we lose patience. Sometimes art’s rewards are measured in years, instead of summoning instantaneous results.

Now we ask (A-δ) which (benefit or detriment) is greater? The positive benefits of claiming a place in aesthetics and art, by way of primary experience, sheds light on all three of these components. Recall that Dewey wanted, not only to invigorate an investigation into the ways experience informs art-making, he also wanted to blur the delineation between art and aesthetics. According to Dewey, the artistic and everyday experience contains patterns of doing and undergoing.[6] For instance, it takes a patient intelligence to know that the intense effort of carving wood requires a mainstay of tenacious strength to overcome the boundaries of hardness, combined with maintaining the sharpness of one’s tools, to create a desired sculptural effect. As much as the artist has to undergo the painstaking control of a particular medium to find expression in the inanimate resistance of base matter, so too must the philosopher (writing about aesthetics) find the right words, methods, and strategies to appreciate creative accomplishments. Founding art intermixed with aesthetics on the grounds of experience by no means excludes the acts of appreciation and perception it takes to observe these qualities in tandem, as they are all working in rhythmic synchronicity with each other.

With all of this said, the reader could still be left wondering about art itself. What is art composed of for Dewey? The short answer is probably surmised in the book’s literal title Art as Experience, i.e. art is to be reevaluated as an experience. Drawing this out a bit more, Dewey also brings in many concrete links via all of the above mentioned points, but a salient feature of art stands out as having to do with the relations of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, “…art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience and experience.”[7]

As an artist, I wholeheartedly agree with Dewey’s position, and here are a few of the reasons why. The doing and undergoing of the art making process sounds much simpler than it actually is, but we needn’t fault Dewey for putting it into simple words. Afterall, doing really is about making, it is about the process that lies beyond words. An artist has a multitude of ideas, but the proof of those ideas is only made possible by enacting those ideas into a physical creation, never mind the planning that has to take place to get to work in the first place. The artist has to source his materials while taking into account their cost, and whether or not they are in his budget, so even this little detail of affordability is part of the experience of the project. The idea will then have to be modified if the artist cannot afford to put the idea into actuality, then, and only then, will the artist have to undergo the process of making, fabricating, creating his idea. This undergoing does not promise a successful outcome. The creative energy he puts forth depends on any number of factors that determine the artwork’s overall effect—time, patience, endurance, intelligence, &c., all play a part. This is just the beginning. The artist will then have to market and promote the work before it even gets to be seen by a wider audience, if it even makes it to that stage. And even then, there is no guarantee that it will be received with any acclaim. Dewey’s aesthetics enables these seemingly insignificant elements to be a part of the whole aesthetic experience, i.e. the aesthetics of getting art from the drawing board to the gallery to be considered by an audience becomes a viable way to understand art. An appeal to experience itself is a fantastic way into any art. We just have to be willing to let experience speak for itself. The strength of Dewey’s argument resides in its ability to apply to the wide range of creative expressions, not only as finished products, but also as a way to become more creative with our aesthetic appreciation.

There are the conditions art must undergo, and if we are to take Dewey’s philosophy seriously, we’ll become attune to the qualities and nuances of key aspects that might remain unnoticed, or ignored. Yes, there are an infinite amount of qualities to be noticed about art, and the art making experience, yet if we are intent on adhering to exhausted old fashioned modes of thinking, we cannot move to alternative connections and unthought-of concepts. Dewey’s philosophy allows for a new range of aesthetic experiences, no longer confined to worn-out questions of beauty and tradition. When the struggle of the past is made to be harmonious by the present wisdom of life’s potential, then the future becomes luminous. Art offers us the strength to transform. John Dewey’s experiential aesthetics brings us closer to this brilliant potentiality.

aurelio madrid

[1] Dewey, John, Art As Experience, New York: NY: Perigree, 2005, p. 2.

[2] Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling, Albany, NY: State University of New York press, 1987, p. 186.

[3] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 37.

[4] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 16.

[5] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 41.

[6] Dewey, Art as Experience, pp. 45-7.

[7] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 50.


Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: Horizons of Feeling. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, NY: Perigree, 2005.

Hildebrand, David. Dewey: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2008.


barthes, foucault & derrida

April 18, 2014 § 2 Comments


meret oppenheim / object / 1936

It is with a slight reluctance to declare that philosophical theories, advanced in the name of post-structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, etc., are past their prime. However, one will readily admit that philosophy has a perennial applicability, that is, if one follows Louis Althusser’s radical claim that philosophy has no history.[1] In other words, there is always room to explore philosophy outside of an historical paradigm that privileges chronology, e.g. our thinking is not antiquated if we try to negate Plato’s idealism in everyday, contemporary terms. This short post will seek to provide a brief account of how three preeminent post-structuralist thinkers were interested in repositioning, rethinking, and reevaluating: (a) traditional practices of reading a unified work, with Roland Barthes, (b) a single author who frames a discourse, with Michel Foucault, and, (c) language operating within presuppositions of fixed, de/coded meanings, with Jacques Derrida. This account (this post) should give a general direction from where to draw on each philosopher’s pursuits for future dissembling of modernist ideologies of univocity, presence, unification, history, and so on.

All ideas considered, close to the base of Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida’s projects, is a de-centering of a work, author, and meaning—respectively. Barthes, in his essay from the early 1970s, “From Work to Text,” presents a dichotomy between reading what he terms: the work and a Text. Here, a common modernist (and historical) assumption might be to place most, if not all, the importance of meaning on single literary works. His motivation gracefully slides away from the static univocal work, to that of the fluid dynamic multiplicity of a Text. One might ask, what is the difference between a work and a Text? The two terms sound like the same things, i.e. isn’t the ‘text’ something you read in a ‘work’? Barthes lays down a number of ways that the two terms are different. “The difference is this: the work is a fragment of substance, occupying the space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field.”[2] For Barthes, a work is singular, whereas a Text is plural. If one were to recall the classic Saussurian semiotic division of the sign: signifier represents the word, spoken or otherwise, and the signified represents the concept signaled by the word, Barthes shows that the Text “practices the infinite deferment of the signified”[3] and the work operates more like a traditional sign. This “deferment” implies that any particular work carries with it an inherent instability of meaning. It’s not just that a single word has a hoard of meanings connected to it. It is rather, that each word can’t settle on being isolated within a single reading. Words then, in this sense, open themselves up from a concrete context of a work to a dynamic fluidity of the Text. Barthes associates play with a way to encounter a text, much in the same way a musician or an orchestra would methodically play a piece of music. Works, in Barthes’ context, do not play out like this since they are (due to the enforcements of culture) confined to singular interpretations, as opposed to being open to creative and necessary possibilities. Music and poetry are two excellent examples of how Barthes’ theory is applicable to the field of artistic expression. Poetry, say Japanese haiku, due to its elegant brevity, invites a wide range of playfulness, since the play of a poem happens beyond what is actually said—words allude to meaning, they don’t dictate it.

In a discourse of art history, the concept of the ‘artist genius’ is arduously rehashed in the usual ways art is understood and conceptualized. Studying art parallels the manner in which an author is regarded in a literary discourse. Yes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but the mindset of art history’s old-fashioned discourse is not easy to dislodge, given that this was the prevailing discourse for centuries. The paradigm runs like this: if one wants to get to know art better, what can be done is to get to know the life of the artist, look at her other works, and her oeuvre will answer any of our questions as what to make of any singular expression. Her name, if she’s famous enough to be recognized, stands in for her style, her discourse, and so on. Once, for instance, the name Meret Oppenheim is mentioned we get that the discourse is about surrealism, one quickly forgets that her Object (Fur Breakfast / Le Déjeuner en fourrure) was made within a social milieu that then went far beyond her immediate circle and context of surrealist/artist friends, Breton, Picasso, et al. Closer inspection disperses authorship. “The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.” [4] Foucault expressed this sardonic statement in his essay, also from the 1970s, “What is an Author?” His quote is another way of saying that the author (artist) is one small part of the larger discourse. But what is at stake in a discourse when one is deploying Foucault’s strategy? The short answer is that to study the dominant discourse opens up the way meaning is controlled. The manner in which a traditional discourse usually operates isolates, and stifles meaning to only one category, re: that of the singular author. These could be the reasons why Foucault prefers to use the (philosophical and post-structuralist) term: subject, meaning that the author, in Foucault’s context, becomes subject/ed to the forces of power that surround her. The roles are then reversed. The author is fixed in a web of influence and cultural control. Such moves are important, if only to comprehend the interplay of the larger structures that created the artist. One might forget that the artist is just as pliant as the materials with which she works. It is impossible to imagine that Foucault can be summarized in such a short space, but it is easy to posit that an author, the mythic genius, need not be the sole framing device in any discourse, whether it is in the field of art history and beyond.

As for the question of how there can be a transformation of created, negated meaning that is also de/coded within the context of a particular discourse, Derrida’s famous (or infamous, depending on your affiliations) mode of philosophy, aptly named deconstruction, is brought to the fore. Here is yet another example of how a single idea speaks volumes, therefore to give a full explication of the diffusion of his radical project is not within a comprehensible range. Still, one has to start somewhere, and since the topic at hand is aesthetical, there is “Parergon,” a chapter from Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting from the 1980s. In these highly erudite pages both Hegel and Heidegger’s aesthetics are considered and up for inspection. While Heidegger was looking for the origins on a work of art, Hegel presumes that art is a firm and stable category to begin with. Derrida shows that the question of what art is, or what are its origins “assumes that we reach an agreement about what we understand by the word art.”[5] The ways in which one asks a question and the very questions themselves aggressively gesture toward the expectation of the answers. Buried deep within Derrida’s deconstructive methodology is the ghost of his phenomenological past, since the reader is consistently asked to re-inquire Hegel and Heidegger’s presuppositions[6] about works of art. Even within this inquiry one is tempted to think that Derrida is wishing to come to some definitive conclusion, or that this is a kind of critique aimed to get on to a better line of argumentation. These objectives are not his goal. All we need to do is decode the work of art, and then we’ll understand it—is not where he’s going. If common understanding desires a univocity of meaning, Derrida’s deconstruction shows that meaning is only a settlement of naturalized codes of convention, history, discourse, culture, and the like.

With Derrida, post-structuralism and postmodernism take to full stratospheric flight, yet he didn’t work in a vacuum, Barthes’ Text and Foucault’s critical discourse are also factors that make for alternative vectors of open study and inquiry. In Barthes’ theory, where semiotics and structuralism still predominated, the Text becomes a playful anecdote to the stolid work. One reads a Text like a musician plays Bach. Then, with Foucault, there is the overarching power of culture, society, and hegemonies that deployed to inculcate the subject to abidingly operate inside the structures of particular epistemic discourses. Finally, as mentioned, with Derrida, there is a full dispersal and unfolding of meaning, whereby one is left to question the very means by which things are understood, defined and philosophically regarded. Post-structuralism destabilizes structures that we were not even aware of, and the question remains: what can we did to avoid becoming their victims?

Aurelio Madrid



Badiou, Alain, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006. Accessed April 14, 2014,

Barthes, Roland, “From Work to Text.” In Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Derrida, Jacques, “Parergon.” In The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, 17-33. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel, “What is an Author?” In Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, 949-953. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

——, “What is an Author?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 101-120. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory, 1900-200: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Sarup, Madan, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1989.

[1] See Alain Badiou, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition.” The Symptom,, 1997/2006, accessed April 14, 2014,

[2] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Art in Theory, 966.

[3] Barthes, “From Work to Text,” 967.

[4] Foucault, “What is an Author?” Art in Theory, 952.

[5] Derrida, “Parergon,” in The Truth in Painting, 20.

[6] Husserl’s motto “go to the things themselves,” urges us to let go of presuppositions of the so-called ‘natural attitude’ from which to better get into the epoché, re: the phenomenological reduction (an attempt to get to a pure phenomenological description of experience). No, this is not Derrida’s pursuit exactly, but there is a aspect of letting go of presuppositions in order to get at a wider dispersal of meaning.

on plotinus/beauty

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment


That the ancient 3rd century Neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus should choose to first write about beauty is in itself a beautiful thing.[1] Why couldn’t one falling for a beautiful object, idea, or virtuous living, also be a person who falls in love with wisdom? It is in his introductory treatise, “Beauty” from the Enneads, that Plotinus makes the uncommon (yet entirely relevant) connection between aesthetics and ethics. This affiliation is relevant if we accept that the ethical life or better yet, the virtuous life is one that is beautiful to our universal conceptions of how one aspires to virtue. The spare objectives for this paper will be to first look at Plotinus’s opening sections of his treatise on the beautiful that analyze various qualities concerning a physical conception of beauty, and then continuing through the treatise to examine his way of transitioning from physical matters to an all-important aesthetic of virtue. In closing, a few ideas will be offered by which to contemplate Plotinus’s departure from the material.

Without any unnecessary forgoing, in §§1-3, Plotinus presents us with a few basic notions that have to do with a sensory perception of the beautiful, as visual, auditory, etc. These are immediately sketched in tandem with the idea that a virtuous life is also something of beauty. “Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits” are themselves beautiful (I, 6 [1], 1). But what of these things in relation to one another?—how is the virtuous related to a beautiful object? Firstly, Plotinus has to get us to understand what he means by a beautiful thing, a “bodily form,” this has to be done before one can know how appreciating virtue is aesthetical. A reason why this arrangement is valuable is that one might forget that to consider something beautiful might mean to go beyond the sensual. In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful can be something other than (commercialized) sight, scent, sound, touch, or taste. It is just as well that in Plotinus’s time there were those who thought that beautiful things had only to do with symmetry.[2] In our own regard, this simple idea should not be cast off too quickly, since it does stand to reason that a beautiful face is one that is supposedly more symmetrical. Or in another vein, that a handsome building such as Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is beautiful due to its symmetry. Certainly too, a butterfly’s wings are beautiful in their symmetry. It’s easy to see why the ancient thinkers would have thought of beautiful things as possessing symmetry, yet it becomes clear for Plotinus that this is not the only trademark of beauty. Held within this notion, that beauty is tied to things that are symmetrical, is also the idea that these things must be composites—that they be made up of parts. To be sure, of the examples mentioned, these things are composite, a butterfly has a body in the middle of two wings, and St. Peter’s Basilica has a central dome flanked by two smaller domes on either side, and so on. Can one not find beauty in a non-composite thing? “But is not gold beautiful? And a single star by night?” (I, 6 [1], 1). In agreement with Plotinus, it will be said that gold’s power is beautiful all by its self, and that it doesn’t always need any of the aforesaid symmetry for us to cherish it all the same.

Along with these issues, there is another more pressing question. Since Plotinus privileges the virtuous with his consideration of the beautiful, this begs the question as to whether or not the soul’s ways can be said to be symmetrical. How can one suggest that, for example, an altruistic deed is symmetrical? There is much talk these days about living a ‘balanced’ life, implying a kind of symmetry brought about by weighing the good with the bad, or a life where good healthy living is made to be balanced with what?—equal measures of a bad, unhealthy life? It must be better said that such a life of ‘balance’ is instead, one made of careful moderation, temperance, and kindness, all attributes of virtue, but not a life measured into symmetrical components whereby the good is balanced with the bad, into neat, even proportions to be measured. “What yardstick could preside over the balancing of the The Soul’s potencies and purposes?” (I, 6 [1], 1).

Already, one gets the feel for what Plotinus wishes for his readers to see, issues of beauty are tough to define as is the very pursuit of a good life. One thing is already clear: symmetry doesn’t necessarily define the beautiful. But the beautiful in bodily forms has to be more than that, and it doesn’t just mean that bodily forms (physical objects) aspire to the virtuous either. For a physical object to be beautiful as with an artistic expression, it has to be “in accord with Idea” (I, 6 [1], 2). In §3 Plotinus writes on the way an object’s beauty relies on the Idea and the intelligible. This is given the metaphor of fire, whereby fire’s beauty inhabits physical matter much as an Idea inhabits a physical, created form. “Always struggling aloft, this subtlest of elements is at the last limits of the bodily” (I, 6 [1], 3). Fire is destructive as much as it is life supporting, and just as well, our ideas and concepts of things can destroy or create the man-made objects of this world. Plotinus cherishes this kind of connection from the mystical to the physical. The things of the physical realm, when touched by the hand of an artist whose soul is in alignment with the intelligible realm, partake in the discernible, laudable, and beautiful qualities of the Idea. A beautiful house is not only beautiful in its aesthetic composure, it is beautiful in the way that it is engineered to be a comfortable home that has ease of movement, organization, and is structurally sound.

And another profound thought is brought about in §4, here one finds out that if we are to recognize beauty, we must be able to find it as an aspect of our own soul. “Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul” (I, 6 [1], 4). How can one judge the character of others without already having a sense of what it means to have an upright character as a potential in ourselves? It’s easy to misunderstand honest virtue when we have fallen in with the depravity of the body’s lusts. This idea smoothly transitions into §5 where one can foster the beautiful from inside, providing oneself with such qualities as “largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness… [etc.]” (I, 6 [1], 5). But when the soul is sullied, it likes to wallow it its decrepitude. That paradoxical human trait the French call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) is not far from this downgrading of man’s soul described by Plotinus. How often does one hear of the variegated humiliations of desire, or the voluntary servitudes of the flesh, in which a man is willing to subject himself to when he is overly enamored with the body’s filiations? In spite of these hungers, what this suggests is the idea that the soul is already pure, and that when it wishes to taste earthly filth, it can still purify itself beyond that, “the soul is ugly when it is not purely itself” (I, 6 [1], 5). The beauty of gold now serves to metaphorically symbolize the purity that a soul can become when un-pure dirt is filtered from it, and then washed away.

Too close of an easy concession with the body draws the pure soul downward. To ascend up toward the beautiful the soul has to succumb to certain rejections of the bodily, e.g. “what is magnanimity except scorn of earthly things?” (I, 6 [1], 6). For Plotinus, the Good is beautiful as much as the “intellective” is beautiful. This has to mean that intelligence and the learned are forms of beauty, thus speaking mystically: The Soul is made beautiful in congruence with The Intelligence. By extension, a person’s soul is made beautiful in correspondence with the intelligible—with what is typically called wisdom.

For Plotinus, the beautiful souls have been “stripped of the muddy vesture with which they were clothed in their descent” (I, 6 [1], 7). Once man’s soiled habits have been cast off, he can again seek to become unified with the Good. His seeking for the Good will not be easy, since the comforts of the degraded body drag him away from it all the time. It is at this point, in §7, where one is not completely sure if the bodily has anything worthwhile to offer the soul, other than as mere vehicle. One is also led to wonder if rejecting the material world will be as beautiful as we are led to believe. Still, the beauty of an ascetic life is one where our goals are grand while our body is kept humble. The virtuous is kept alive in this direction upward. There is something to learn. The body is limited. To aim upward to the virtuous, what must be done? “We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing…” (I, 6 [1], 8).

Plotinus is good to remind his readers again that if they wish to be beautiful “by the virtue of men for their goodness” they will have to look inside themselves (I, 6 [1], 9). To become virtuous, one will have to look inside and work the soul as one who would sculpt fine marble. This kind of work is spiritual work, making the soul pure, emulating pure action, becoming a better person, and delimiting the pangs of the corporeal. To repeat, one cannot do any of this until we come to a closer comprehension of our own role, our own problems, and our particular shortcomings. When these virtuous thoughts are put into action, perhaps there will be time to take notice of Plotinus’s hierarchy, where Beauty resides with the Intellect, but does not completely reach the heights of the One, which is in closer proximity to the Good (from where Beauty originates).

But is beauty really as internal, rather than external as Plotinus suggests? It is clear that in our day-and-age, physical beauty is a quality that is highly valued. And it is also clear that being virtuous is highly valued. Of course, whether one takes the moral-high-ground, physical beauty will have to be subordinate. Who would voluntarily claim that physical beauty is better than virtuous action? Not many would say it with words outright. However, it can be observed that such dichotomies are not so obviously binary, and again how can such things be measured? Philosophically speaking, these sharp divisions between the body and spirit, matter and idea, figure prominently in a philosophic discourse beginning with Plato and beyond. It is because of this problem, between the mind and body, where one looks for the places where the two are reconciled, say with Phenomenology or other such ideas. With this said, one mustn’t become too cynical to discard Plotinus for his priorities, his hierarchies, and his divisions. Even though the world around us might privilege the beautiful face over the beautiful action, it continues to make sense that vain thinking is shallow. Plotinus’s way of placing the physical below the spiritual is idealistic without a doubt. This is problematic if one is to assume that such idealism is flawed, such cynicism prevails only if we repeatedly propagate it ourselves. Plotinus’s teachings are beautiful when one is ready to hear them. This is an idealistic effort, but a key factor will be what happens once the virtuous is put into action in the day-to-day of our lives. Only then will our idealism be actualized. Being good does not happen in a vacuum, it has to be meted out dynamically. The beauty of the good life is made possible by action. Plotinus was not only contemplative, he was wise and intelligible. If he had never put into words his beautiful thoughts, philosophy would be less pure, less wise.

Aurelio Madrid



Inge, Wiliiam Ralph. The Philosophy of Plotinus: The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-1918, Vol. II. New York, New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.

Pistorius, Philippus Villiers. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers Limited, 1952.

Plotinus, The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. New York, New York: Faber and Faber, 1969.

—. The Essential Plotinus. Translated by Elmer O’Brien. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964.

[1] Elmer O’Brien mentions that “Beauty” is “the earlier of the treatises” and that “for centuries Beauty was the sole treatise by which Plotinus was known.” Plotinus, “Beauty,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964, 33.

[2] O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.

Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics, part III by Reinaert de V.

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bullfighter 3

rineke dijkstra“bull fighter vila franca de xira and montemor o novo, portugal” / 1994/ c-print

adorno is famous for saying (in translation) that “to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” this was notably said after the horrors of world war ii & therefore after reason’s demise. his statement is rather tough for us to listen to, considering the fact that we evaluate most things with a capitalist’s measure—that is ‘does it sell?’ because of our one-dimensional rationalism, we tend to think that to buy comfort, pleasure, privilege &c. is the rule. all the while, we forget & ignore the tangible value of ever noticing our own day-to-day suffering & that of others. when suffering is to be done away with (when it is to be purchased away), we also recoil when it stares at us (as it usually does), and as it posits itself in the unnerving manner of artistic expression. so, if we can’t look to suffering as way to understand our own struggles, then how can we see what we’ve done to ourselves by distancing each other from the very nature we pretend to love? art shows us these enigmatic problems & it is this hard-to-recognize expression that often scares us away & it suggests the very natural discomforts we run from. again, we look to art for answers, but we should be critical of the wholeness we seek, since the whole is never what it might seem to define completely without pain & without essential mystery. with this said, I offer gratitude again to reinaert de v. for showing us how adorno magnifies what we can’t see & what we’re afraid to know about art & aesthetics.

“Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely into a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they sought consolation in first nature.” (AT, p.63)

Adorno distinguishes two separate though overlapping ‘worlds’ or spheres. On the one hand there is the mediated world of social convention we live in, which he terms Second Nature, and which consists of all we have made our own and has thereby become an extension of our-selves. And on the other side of the divide there is First Nature, consisting of everything unmade, unmediated, and thus outside of our reach, that “has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70) Authentic artworks express this duality. They reveal the tension that exists between these two opposite poles, which lets itself be felt as a fundamental divide between what ‘merely is’, and what could, nay, what should be. Accordingly, these works express that there will always be something missing, something that eludes our grasp, and does not conform or bend to our will. Namely, something to be found out there, in First Nature, and in particular in Natural Beauty which appears alive (AT, p.5)“luminous from within” – as though something more. It is the difference or contrast between these two worlds that ‘animates’ and brings to life natural objects. But by holding “fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature”, authentic artworks come to find consolation in the knowledge that, as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) so pointedly put it: “never the twain shall meet”. The longing of artworks to reconcile themselves – become one – with First Nature, stems from the “immediacy” (AT, p.70) of the mediated world of conventions that suffocates them. It is their need of fresh air that makes them go out in search of new forms that allow them to ‘bridge the unbridgeable’ and ‘express the inexpressible’, in order to escape a world closing in on them – and to open it up by re-establishing contact with what is ‘outside’ of it. But in the process of doing so, they reveal themselves to be in fact Second Nature, because by aiming and ultimately failing to become First Nature, artworks fully crystallize undisturbed into Second Nature. After all, as we saw, the nearer one gets to it, the more elusive and ephemeral it becomes: “fleeting to the point of déjà vu…” And more importantly, following from the above, everything at the work’s disposal, content as well as form, can never escape being conditioned and determined beforehand, for all of our experiences are by definition mediated. So it is in their “immanent problems of form” that they bring out the “complex of tensions” and “unresolved antagonisms of reality” which “converges with the real essence” of the work (AT, p.6). Through the drama of the struggle between First and Second Nature, as embodied in great works of art, it finally manages to let go. That is, the admittance of its failure, as exposed in its inherent shortcomings – its authenticity –, allows the artwork to open up and surrender itself to First Nature, “as if in need of a breath of fresh air”. And it is this beautiful failure, a gesture at something more, outside itself, that makes First Nature enter the work and illuminate it from within [1]. Thus revealing the limits of our reach and the vicissitudes of reality, as well as its transience (AT, p.70).

“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.” (AT, p.15)

And here we come to the heart of the matter, where Natural Beauty, history, and the development of art grab into each other like cogs. Because on the one hand Natural Beauty seems to suggest a purely random process of continuous growth and development, while on the other hand certain objects and artworks light up as if they have got something to tell, while others lie dormant. So the question becomes: what is it about these particular works and objects that makes them flare up in the first place? The answer may lie in the mechanism of projection. For even though nature feeds and sustains us, in its materiality it remains indifferent to our affairs, it thus provides the perfect foil for our endeavors. Not only does art share this indifference to the extent that – for it to stand out and create an opening – it is continually forced to split-off and run counter to “reality’s compulsion to identity” (AT, p.4), freeing the artwork “to model the relation of whole and part according to the work’s own need” (AT, p.4) through which it gains its luster. But in its very effort to fend off reality’s compulsion, art is compelled to ally itself with the non-identical – with what resists and does not bend to our will – linking it even further to nature. Because for it to distinguish itself, merely changing its appearance will not do when everything has already been conquered and mediated by spirit, it would only be more of the same. Which is why, to be truly challenging the work needs to be non-identical as well, or to identify itself with what is suppressed – that is nature. However, art, like everything else, can only sustain itself by retaining its self-identity, or as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) says “one paints a painting, not what it represents.” (AT, p.4) Yet, due to its alliance with the non-identical, art’s identity is by its very nature unstable, so much so that art and artworks are “right into the smallest detail of their autonomy […] something foreign and opposed to it” (AT, p.4) and therefore prone to self-annihilation. It is in this sense that art’s development closely resembles and mirrors that of society’s, since both are driven by the same dialectic of nature and its domination. To survive in a hostile and unaccommodating world, man had no choice but to slowly detach himself from his immediate surroundings, and subject them to his will, but by severing those ties one by one, he became more and more estranged from his humble beginnings[2]. Art, owing to its sympathy for the non-identical, followed man in his detachment from nature – essentially a process of disenchantment – which has culminated in his autonomy and self-mastery. This autonomy art achieved by separating itself from the imprints of nature’s heterogeneous material, freeing it from its cultic roots and religious aura, and allowing it “to take every possible object as an object of art […] and expunged from it the rawness of what is unmediated by spirit.” (AT, p.63)

[coming up] more on the role of projection in the dialectic of art and society.

[1] The “beautiful failure” of an artwork exposes a lack. By showing ‘how things are’ in their endless variety and complexity, authentic artworks simultaneously show how things should or could be. After all, ‘the way things are’ never quite matches up with our expectations thereof. This sense of longing for something “more” – for something that will in fact ultimately fulfill our deepest desires and highest hopes – and which is felt through its painful absence, is exemplary of the works of James Joyce (1882-1941), especially his haunting masterpiece “Ulysses” (1922). But one can also see something similar at work in Charles Baudelaire’s notion of beauty. The fullness of an artwork thus springs forth paradoxically from an experienced lack. Since it cannot be directly stated or ‘brought out into the open’, only indirectly alluded to: it enters the work from the outside, as it were. Therefore, as with man’s autonomy, an artwork can only be considered art, if it appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Adorno uses the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano “searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” (AT, p.32). However, to achieve the desired result – of showing ‘how things are [and were]’ – a thorough mastery of the subject matter is required. For precisely this mastery will allow the artist in his work (and the beholder of it) to overcome and be free of ‘all that is’: “Subjective pleasure in the artwork would approximate a state of release from the empirical as from the totality of the heteronomous. Schopenhauer might have been the first to realize this. The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped.” (AT, p.15) – and thus, it is “the totality of the heteronomous [i.e. ‘all that is’]” “over which, for their happiness, [artworks] must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble” (AT, p.6). Unsurprisingly, art’s “beautiful failure” also points to a continuous frustration with ‘how things are’, being that it is what prevents art from fully expressing itself, destining it to pull back the curtain on reality’s inevitable shortcomings. This inherent tension or ‘critical tendency’ of art is the reason why Adorno warns not to rest in the pleasurable feeling it affords, since it would amount to a state of release and a dissipation of energies. Instead Adorno promotes poetry that retreats “into what abandons itself unreservedly to the process of disillusionment. It is this that constitutes the irresistibility of Beckett’s work.” (AT, p.16) For the modernist poetry of Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989) is no longer satisfied with mere spielerei, because, in a sense, there is no more room to play – no more outside. The absurd and fragmentary style of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is another instructive example of what, according to Adorno, constitutes modern art. For Kafka’s writing not only successfully captures the modern subject’s complete alienation from self and society in its depictions of rampant bureaucracy. But due to its radical idiosyncrasy – “the subject thrown back on himself” (AT, p.63) – it also creates these cryptic self-enclosed worlds that reflect in a negative or inverted way, modernity’s ever-expanding reach: “artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not” (AT, p.5). The question however is, if art has to forever discard the beautiful in favor of anguish and disillusionment, or if instead there will come a time when there will be once again room for wonder and beauty – as Adorno himself notes: “It is outside the purview of aesthetics today whether it is to become art’s necrology.” (AT, p.4) For further reading on this latter issue, I strongly recommend Sir Ernst Gombrich’s highly original and beautifully written study of The Preference for the Primitive.

[2][Footnote 7] By “severing those ties” which bind us to nature, man in effect ‘blinded’ himself. For ‘Reason’ needs something that resists in order for it to keep its bearings and stay its course, a “rawness [that] is unmediated by spirit” (AT, p.3). Because the downside of being able “to take every possible object as an object of art” (AT, p.63) is that art fully sides with the subject, and in doing so becomes subservient to man’s (arbitrary) will. From that moment on decisions on what to depict and how, are made irrespective of material necessity, which leads to a subversion of “the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71) And with the object thus demoted and dismissed, art merely mirrors the personal taste of a solitary subject, detached from its surroundings. Meanwhile the surroundings, in their turn, are transformed to fit the needs (as well as the wishes and whimsies) of this newly liberated subject, further suppressing the ‘otherness’ of the object. After all, the subject only becomes liberated through newly advanced techniques of control and ‘repression’: methods and techniques that are the direct result (and expression) of the distancing of the subject. It is important to recall in this respect, that every transformative act – that engages the subject – is in fact a creative act, and, as such, one of artistry. Which is why, as we will see, religion more fully absorbs and reflects its immediate surroundings, its locality, than modernity does – to which it is a precursor. The reason for this is that during this ‘intermediate phase’ of development, man has not yet gained the upper hand. He is still unable to fundamentally transform and control his surroundings. So that, in order to make them more hospitable to human endeavors, he can only hope to ‘bribe the gods’ and ‘meet them halfway’. Religion therefore, represents the first colossal effort by man to come to terms (and grips) with his environment, and to establish some kind of relationship or ‘rapport’ with it, if only to make sense of it all – or to orient himself. All this, of course, by hopelessly inadequate means, and driven in large part by fear. Yet, in an important sense, the values thus created are thoroughly informed by their circumstances and more expressive of man’s needs. Basically it is this ‘respect for the object’ or “attitude to objectivity” (AT, p.3) that Adorno thinks is crucial for us to retain, or re-attain. Not simply to affirm a new or better state of affairs, since by definition “suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject.” Quite the contrary: its aim is to “let suffering speak” for it “is a condition of all truth.” (Negative Dialectics, 1966, p.17-18) In other words, “the primacy of the object” functions both as a whetstone for the mind, in that it keeps us sharp, critical of our conditions – i.e. reflexive – and free. And as a marker, providing us with directions. Thereby protecting us from a potentially devastating blindness. For as we have seen, with the arrival of modernity everything has become extremely malleable and cloaked in our (self-)image, due to technological advances. Slowly turning modernity into a ‘singularity’, or a place where – because of the resultant loss of resistance – things start to lose their meaning and bearing, and eventually run the risk of collapsing in upon themselves. Similar to the tragic myth of Oedipus therefore, ‘Reason’s’ ascendancy or its ‘coming of age’, was only possible at the high prize of self-immolation: i.e. a loss of critical reflection due to a repudiation of its origins. For more information, see footnote 12 on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” where this Freudian aspect – the hidden cost of self-preservation – is explained in detail. The prescient writings on exoticism by the French poet, surgeon, and interpreter Victor Segalen (1878-1919), may shed additional light on the complexities surrounding modernity and the magnitude of its impact.

Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics, part II by Reinaert de V.

May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment


lily van der stokker / money / 1999 / silkscreen print

…& here is the 2nd installment on adorno’s aesthetic theory by reinaert de v. …reinaert de v. writes: “Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery.” this line exemplifies one of adorno’s challenges to place art in a semi-indefinable range of possibility & potential. once we are able to view & think of art as unclosed & “non-identical” & with parts that are essentially “irreducible”, we can then start to see how this leads to adorno’s important concept of “negative dialectics” which unravels the rational closure of hegel’s speculative absolutions & propels us away from the surety of the enlightenment. again, this is unlike the way we commonly think of aesthetics, but where would critical theory be without it?

“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)

Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify.[1] With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)

By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold[2]. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richness the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vuthat makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.

“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)

Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible[3]. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,

“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)

Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms the primacy of the object, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but nonidentical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.

[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.

[1] Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought processor an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.

[2] “Allegorical interpretation” in this way is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.

[3] There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)

Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics: Introduction by Reinaert de V.

May 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

folkert de jong

folkert de jong / chop chair / 2005 / styrofoam, polyurethane & silicone rubber

…this post is the long awaited 1st installment of reinaert de v.’s comments on theodor adorno’s book “aesthetic theory.” adorno’s philosophy might be perceived by some to be difficult & obscure, but reinaert de v. easily brings us to his brilliant & radical ideas with fresh eyes—indeed a way to think of art & aesthetics as ever more then we’ve normally imagined. …& yes, thanks again to reinaert de v. for this fine work. we look forward to learning more.

“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”

(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)

This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferatedagainst – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.

Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel [1], but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20thcentury.

This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs [2] – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.

In the next few weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.

[1] See in this context also The Rise of Modernity, part IIfor the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.

[2] ”The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man regains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.

on g.w.f. hegel’s aesthetics (reply to reinaert de v.’s the rise of modernity, part 1)

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

aufheben hegel

Dear Reinaert de V.,

…it’s been so long reading a post from you (The Rise of Modernity, Part 1) & now together we’re back continuing to think & write about philosophy again. I feel that your philosophical interests are akin to my own, with obvious variance here & there. Yet, as our ideas have converged before, we’ve overcome our differences & now I’m struggling to recall who brought up G.W.F. Hegel first. I think it was you who about a year ago spoke of writing on his aesthetics & that inspired me to read & then write on his Phenomenology of Spirit—followed by looking & writing a little on his Aesthetics. Part of my interest also came to the fore while researching, reading & writing about Althusser’s ideology. Althusser openly rejected Hegel, since whole aspects of Hegel’s metaphysical ‘excesses’ were sloughed-off by late Marxist materialism. Let it be known that the more I found Hegel’s thought to be reviled by nineteenth & twentieth century thinkers, the more I wanted to embrace him. With this said, I’m not of the mind to simultaneously let go of Althusser & the others, as I see that this impulse is too narrow-minded & not inclusive, nor wide ranging enough to adequately engage philosophers that are of opposing views.

I needed to know what Hegel was all about & I wanted to try to grasp this imposing figure, who has always represented a special kind of insurmountable thinking. The only obstruction I discovered had to be overcome in my own mind. The resolve had to do with the work it takes to climb the rocks & to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with a failure to comprehend & to then re-read & to then strive for his kind of knowing that always includes the discomfort of not knowing. This continual task of re-reading is itself a kind of knowing. The conscious acquisition of knowledge has to confront what it doesn’t know in order to learn & then know better then it did before. Our eventual goals to know can be held alongside Hegel’s rushing toward absolute knowledge, absolute idea & absolute spirit, all of this is with the knowledge that philosophy should help us to be more capable of getting set on this journey of knowing & with the admission that this philosophical path is also Hegel’s way to absolute knowledge, that will include self-knowing & as a way to know the world as without the typical constraints that divide subject & object—as a pure unified knowing, that we’ll never truly know altogether.

Of course, we’ll be forced to see this drive to know & to know Hegel as fraught with many frustrations & these frustrations are often mistaken as flaws with Hegel’s un/intended obscurity. I’ve decided to think of the pain felt with these obscurities as a way of confronting & comprehending the dialectic & more specifically coming to terms with the central pivot of the dialectic, known as the sublation, the aufheben. This is noticed after the very beginning of any presuppositionless sense apprehension that is being & nothing sublated, then becoming thought & that could become a moment of conceptual thinking—this process of spirit coming to know is sometimes lovingly referred to by Hegel as a way to science (we’d be good to think of this too as thinking that’s onward to philosophical conceptualization & idea). Aufheben is a unique German word that roughly means to bring up, as well as to preserve & also to cancel out, to do away with, perhaps to bring back again. I like to think of the word as a reconciliation. This strange self-contradicting word: aufheben—which for Fichte & our usual understanding of Hegel’s dialectic—is defined as the contradiction &/or the antithesis. It can then be thought of as related to the fundamental negation within Hegel’s dialectic. Another word we can’t ignore here is speculation, or the speculative, which is certainly linked to the above mentioned word as a reconciliation that happens within the aufheben. The speculative is a reconciling of oppositions that thereby brings things, concepts, ideas, problems, philosophy &c. into the whole of the absolute, all in the name of the Hegelian dialectic. I’m sure Hegel thought of the whole of his philosophy as speculative, which again underscores the word aufheben. In short, we have to pass through, push down, bring up, & preserve the aufheben to really know Hegel.

From this initial confrontation of mine & back to the actual point of simply thanking you for your interest in Hegel, we’re drawn to a conclusion that when we sit down to study Hegel, to think about Hegel & then to sometimes reject Hegel, we’d be amiss to not take notice of the dialectical & speculative logic he laid for out us. This urges us to take notice of how he could’ve predicted his own negations, his potential demise, whereby the absolute spirit of our contemporary way of knowing has included & possibly grown out of this foreboding presence known as Hegel’s philosophy. This way of thinking about the dialectic includes his own speculative end, but never an end absolutely, as any ending has to include Hegel coming before us. We must not confuse this with the potential to lead us nowhere, since we can remember that his telos leads us to a transformation of the whole that once was, to the whole that can be & that won’t be overlooked as brought forward by Hegel.

It’s with friendly admiration that I’m happy to say you’ve done fine work to continue Hegel’s concepts into a fresh now. It’s worth noting that whenever we focus on a specific idea of Hegel’s ideal, we must not lose sight of how this transfers to the bigger picture of his entire oeuvre (the absolute). You have looked at the aesthetics of Hegel, citing passages form his Lectures on Aesthetics & I couldn’t help but thinking that your selections sound very much like his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. For example you write: “Thus the enlightened individual is able to move about freely & realize himself fully by partaking of the substantiality that is the state & thereby becoming more than what was his own.” When we compare this statement of yours to one found in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, we are reminded that the individual is fully actualized (as you indicated) in the state: “The worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect & represent the national spirit…” But, perhaps this is not in a totalitarian way, as the individual is realized within the a state of mutual freedom with other individuals. These other individuals are allowed their differences & particularities as features of their freedom, since this freedom is not really about the impulsive free reign of desires. When we continue moving from this idea that the individual is actualized in a state—a state of freedom with others—we come to the thought that you point to that directly echoes Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” … reading this next Hegel’s statement from the Philosophy of History shows  a distinct similarity: “The individual can certainly make the state into a means of attaining this or that end. But the truth is realized only insofar as each individual wills the universal cause itself and has discarded all that is inessential.”

As you already know, what we’re talking about is spirit, absolute spirit. The realization of reason is universal & it is spirit as the realization of the idea. The spirit is a determination of the self as it is also a determination of science, religion, knowledge & art. The goals of history, its telos is reason & it is the idea as it’s manifested via the spirit of man as an individual & as a collective. All of this can be thought as the expression of freedom. The objects of thought are what spirit contemplates as consciousness. Freedom is not something that the spirit merely strives for, it is also contained in the basic structure of thought as it knows itself in a self-determined way & not in a pre-ordained, deterministic way. The limitations of the world are what cause our own determinations to become what we are. It is the idea that becomes a goal for the knowing subject, the idea where the concepts of subject & object become sublated, a kind of pure knowing to eventually be without the subjective/objective distinction, the two are conflated as a free idea. There are seeming contradictions that arise from the idea that man is free, while he’s also confined to the rules of the state. Hegel addresses this in the Philosophy of History: “The concept of freedom is such that justice & ethical life are inseparable from it…” & later in the same paragraph we find the conclusion: “…such restrictions [of the state, laws, government &c.] are the indispensible conditions of liberation; society & the state are the only situations in which freedom can be realized.”  It has become evident that Hegel’s thought was consistent throughout the Aesthetics, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Right & many other places. What I find intriguing is that while you outline the details of how you read his Aesthetics, absolute spirit emerges, in the way it manifests itself through the individual & how it includes the expression of man’s spirit, freedom & idea that are communicated into art & also into world history.

We already know that Hegel designates in the Aesthetics that philosophy supersedes the arts & just about everything else. Thus creating a kind of philosophical bird’s-eye-view where Hegel can then look to the pattern of how art has expressed itself in a religious context & that this religious context for art has passed. The apogee of art as a religious expression has been superseded by ‘lesser’ ideals. In the introduction of Hegel’s Aesthetics we find this put in Hegel’s words: “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine & worshipping them.” & in a couple of sentences later we find: “…art, considered in its highest vocation, is & remains a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth & life & it has been rather transferred into our ideas…”  What’s of note here is that “art’s imminent demise” (as you put it) is also due to this observation of Hegel’s that’s brought together with an implication that the individual is sublimated into the apparatus of the state & that this is a condition of art’s demise as it stand today. I believe that this can be maintained, while at the same time retaining & integrating an idea of an art that values thought, conceptualization & reflection.

Little did Hegel know that this would hold true & we’ll be sure to include the all-important ‘concept/idea’ as the driving force behind much of art created recently. As vital as concept is for Hegel’s philosophy, it is also just as intrinsic for a comprehension of artistic practice today. Once religion took ultimate precedence & now it’s thought, reflection, idea & concept. Hegel wasn’t too far off, especially if we consider this within the dialectic, whereby we can see that the self-negation of art has been happening over & over, throughout most of the 20th century (continuing into the 21st). The so-called death of art as a practice & theory has been a (now stale) recurring theme for decades now, yet artistic practice continues to negate itself & to push man’s spirit onward. Art occupies a curious place in today’s world & in that bizarre presentation we’ll see it as a glaring reflection of our own thought, questioning, pain & suffering. Our own pain is addressed in ways that make art appear to be too honest, too brutal. These confrontations are certainly the aufheben for us to bring a fresh re-reading into the world as a free expression of where we’re at in our world, in our spirit, in our minds & universally. We are called upon to conceptualize ourselves thinking about an art that struggles a great deal to let it self be known, as much as we are placed with the responsibility of knowing ourselves how to comprehend just a bit more of it than we did yesterday, till tomorrow places us within a new challenge to think of art again & to not know what we’ll eventually never know absolutely. Hegel leaves us with known & unknown pieces of his wisdom to carry on with the work of thinking that will observe the beauty of striving to know something/someone once more.

Aurelio Madrid

bibliography/works cited:

Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art Vol. 1. Trans. T.M. Knox. New York: Oxford U. Press. 1975. print.

Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction. Trans H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. 1975. print.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1993. print.

Magee, Glen Alexander. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Continuum Pubs. 2010. print.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Aesthetics at luctor et emergo.