Eagleton’s Ideology of Aesthetic (I)

Many people have pointed out an ineluctible connection between religion and art, and most Christian commentators consider this a profound compliment to both parties–the religion and the art. I am becoming increasingly convinced that there is an antagonism far more profound than the alliance or mutual reliance. I wonder (as do many others) whether aesthetics functions in the modern west as a simulacrum and substitution for Christian metaphysics. I am curious to explore thinkers who take this more antagonistic view of the relationship, including Northrop Frye in Secular Scripture and Terry Eagleton in Ideology of Aesthetic, where this question is treated somewhat. (And any other books along these lines which my readership might recommend to me.)

Part of the problem is understanding how much is assumed in the concept of “art” which goes without mentioning. For Eagleton, an essential feature of aesthetics is its emergence in the context of German political crises in the eighteenth-century. Enlightenment and a purely intellectual accounting of the world did not inspire the German masses toward political obedience. Why would I, a potato farmer or tavern owner, obey a monarch, if their “political absolutism,” if the state’s appeal to its own absolute power, is undergirded only by a Kantian philosophy of life which distrusts physical sensation and only obligates belief in the realm of intellection? While Kant was both “courageous Aufklärer and docile subject of the king of Prussia,” most Germans were unwilling to dismiss the sensible realm altogether. So, in Eagleton’s mind, political power “needs for its own purposes to take account of ‘sensible’ life, for without an understanding of this no dominion can be secure. The world of feelings and sensations can surely not just be surrendered to the ‘subjective’, to what Kant scornfully termed the ‘egoism of taste’; instead, it must be brought within the majestic scope of reason itself,” (15).

Aesthetics is the “science of the concrete,” an analog to the act of reason in speculation but in the world of individuals. Thus aesthetics is crucial to political authority insofar as it intersects with history. “For if sensation is characterized by a complex individuation which defeats the general concept, so is history itself. Both phenomena are marked by an irreducible particularity or concrete determinateness which threatens to put them beyond the bounds of abstract thought,” (16). Aesthetics can serve to tame the roles of perception and individual experience in history into a kind of “working replica” of reason in the realm of sensation. “Aesthetics…is a kind of prosthesis to reason, extending a reified Enlightenment rationality into vital regions which are otherwise beyond its scope.”

But the crucial step, for Eagleton, is the moment when the feudalistic (his words, not mine!) absolute political power atrophies and is replaced by the rise of the bourgeoisie and its “individuals whose economic activity necessitates a high degree of autonomy.” With a populace of monads who are laws only unto themselves, how does society regulate itself? If their moral sensibility becomes a matter of choice, whence comes social organization? Art, of course.

“Like the work of art as defined by the discourse of aesthetics, the bourgeois subject is autonomous and self-determining, acknowledges no merely extrinsic law but instead, in some mysterious fashion, gives the law to itself. In doing so, the law becomes the form which shapes into harmonious unity the turbulent content of the subject’s appetites and inclinations,” (23).

To put this in more concrete terms: what do we tend to think makes art good or bad? Well, if you are a painter and some activitists come to you and say, “You should make your painting more explicitly political, try to get people who look at your painting to vote Democrat,” and you, the painter, agree and change your painting toward that end, we of course think this renders the art worse and cheaper. You are a “sell-out.” (Why? This isn’t at all obvious from a pre-modern perspective.) Or if you were a musician and you were writing a bit of liturgical music and the pastor or choir director came and said, “We need it shorter, the service will be too long,” we naturally think that is an affront to the art and will likely make it worse. Why, I’d ask again? Part of it is because we assume two things: (1) the art has its own internal logic which is necessitating it going in a certain direction, and (2) some external logic (ideology, liturgy, practicality) is inserting itself into the situation and disrupting that artistic logic. This is the notion of artistic autonomy, that art should be beholden only to its own rules and not to any others. If art satisfies the exigencies of some other thing (like politics, religion, economics, being short enough for the event, whatever)–well and good, but it should do so accidentally.

Eagleton is saying that we prize this quality in art in large part because the artwork is a mirror for ourselves and how moderns create moral order. We only obey political authority because some internal logic within ourselves, self-determined, tells us we ought to. Not because anything external is constraining us. It is internal conviction, not external coercion. We are autonomous subjects just as our music/poetry/painting/buildings are.

We’ll explore more of Eagleton’s connections later, and I’m particularly curious to probe: (1) is this primarily an economic thing, as he says (he’s a Marxist, so of course he does)? It seems to me that the push toward representative democracy is also a huge factor here, as well as the atrophy of moral epistemology along the lines that MacIntyre has talked about, i.e. the rise of “emotivism” as the dominant account of morality. (2) On a sociological level, how are these autonomous, self-determining individuals interacting with this art which is a mirror of themselves? If we grant that the connection exists between autonomous citizens and autonomous artwork, what direction does the causation run (if any)? (Also a quick (3) to sneak in there: how fascinating that the notion of “harmony” is being transformed from its ancient connotations, but it still refers to organization of the body politic.)


For a music recommendation, I am going to recommend, 7 years late, this bit of Punch Brothers, only because it is an incredible blend of genres (obviously bluegrass, folk, classical, but also alternative rock? funk? neo-soul?! house?!?! Beach Boys?!?!?!?! never see it coming).

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