The cultural turn of aesthetics
As is well known, aesthetics understood as a philosophical discipline, followed an independent road from the theories of art developed by artists and critics that accompanied the history of art. When in the eighteenth century aesthetics became an independent discipline, it held throughout the nineteenth century an independent status vis-a-vis poetics and art criticism, thus confirming its own affiliation with philosophy.
Only recently this exclusive dominion of philosophy over aesthetics has been put into question, especially in the 11lish-speaking world where the need to widen the boundaries of the discipline and to understand it as a much larger field, within which philosophy is only a part, is particularly felt. This tendency has already found a major expression in the monumental Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, directed by Michael Kelly and published in four big volumes, to which more than five hundred scholars from various disciplines have contributed (Kelly, 1998). This enterprise was inspired by a methodology that regards aesthetic as a »meeting place« of many disciplines and various cultural traditions. This project foreshadows a cultural turn in aesthetics that intends to bridge the existing gap between aesthetic knowledge and contemporary society. In fact, what characterizes the latter is the encounter and mixing of codes belonging to different fields, and developed by means of a continuous interaction of signs and an incessant sliding of meanings. What is inadequate, with respect to contemporary society, is not so much traditional aesthetics as the structure that presides over its articulation, its self-enclosed character, that makes its knowledge seem obsolete. It seems that aesthetics can bear fruit only if it succeeds in opening up an epistemological horizon characterized by flexibility. After all, at the basis of the methodology of Cultural Studies there is the Baroque principle of wit that consists in making the distant appear near and the near distant. This principle is even more important when applied to research, which is generally more original, and innovative, the more it explores the margins and the boundaries of canonical knowledge.
These orientations seem to inspire Kelly`s work, which is characterized by three main aspects. In the first place, we should stress his non-conformist approach to the problematic of contemporary aesthetics. Ample space is given to alternative phenomena, generally considered marginal by traditional aesthetics such as »obscenity«, »situationist aesthetics«, or »iconoclasm and iconophobia«. This non-conformist choice is confirmed by the introduction into the aesthetic canon of phenomena that do not belong to »high culture« such as »comics«, »popular culture«, »fashion«, »rock music«, »jazz«, or phenomena that belong to the more transgressive artistic avant-garde such as »anti-art«, »performance art« or »installation art«.
In the second place, the cultural turn imposed on aesthetics by Kelly is clear in the attention to non European and non Western cultures. This is the most striking and exciting aspect of aesthetics` cultural turn which appears to open very wide horizons to a discipline too often considered to be, and not entirely unjustifiably, stale. Thus, African, Black, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, Latin American and pre-Colombian aesthetics appear on the scene, to which many more could be added.
The third aspect that characterizes many of the contributions of this encyclopedia is the influence exercised by post-structuralism and the theories of deconstruction. While traditional aesthetics remains anchored to a philological methodology that often verges on pedantry and on erudition for its own sake, the deconstructive analysis is attentive to what deviates from the norm and from custom. It gives birth to an aesthetics of submerged experience that through the study of secondary aspects of artistic production reveals emotions and affects often not yet codified in definite cultural forms. For example, the entries of the encyclopedia devoted to »outsider art« and to »art of the insane« delve on phenomena bordering on art and non-art. But the deconstructive method is also and above all applied to canonical works, in making explicit what in them is left unsaid.
Nevertheless, all that glitters is not gold! Regarded closely, the encounter between aesthetics and the problematic connected with the notion of culture does not constitute a great novelty! I wonder if aesthetics has not always been, ever since its origins, a »meeting place« of numerous disciplines and cultural traditions. The cultural turn that an always greater number of researchers considers a characteristic of the present development of aesthetics, is perhaps a trait that was always at the origins of aesthetics, and is connected with the complex events that in the West have accompanied the thinking on the beautiful and on art. As is well-known, these two aesthetic objects coincide only in the eighteenth century, entertaining extremely controversial relations with a third philosophical question, strictly connected with the autonomous constitution of the discipline that hinges on the possibility and the characters of sensible knowledge.
In fact the three traditional objects of aesthetics, so to speak, the beautiful, art, and sensible knowledge, are in their turn the meeting point of many and disparate issues. Just to realize how many-sided and multi-layered this discipline is, consider that the same notion of art (called in antiquity with two words that have little to do with one another, namely téchne and ars) in the Renaissance alone becomes a unique concept with which the various arts are comprehended.
But the beautiful, art, and sensible knowledge are not the only objects of traditional aesthetic thought. One also needs to add culture understood as the formation of a discursive public sphere where everyone can take part. It is not by chance that the word for aesthetics employed in 11land in the eighteenth century is criticism. Therefore, from the beginning, the Anglo-Saxon aesthetic approach to society and to the arts is distinctly non conformist. With the word criticism, in fact, it is understood the right of everyone to express an evaluation and an appreciation independent of official canons and conventional hierarchies.
As to the second aspect of the cultural turn promoted by Kelly, namely the widening of research to extra-European aesthetics, it reveals itself as a very problematic one. Not only because of the well-known difficulties inherent to the comparative approach (for instance the fact that Western thought tends to attribute to aesthetic experience an autonomy with respect to ethics and to religion that other cultures do not recognize), but also because European aesthetics tends to assign to the subjectivity and singularity of the artist a greater importance than other cultures. These differences lead to question the very notion of culture that can be formulated in these terms: to what extent is this notion exportable outside the West? Is the category of culture applicable to societies that don`t think of themselves as cultures? In other words, in the aesthetic project of a non-Western culture, what is at issue is not only the notion of aesthetics but of culture too.
After all, from the moment we attribute a decisive importance to the self-reflection of societies, even the presumed unity of the Western point of view breaks down in a multiplicity of different perspectives. For instance, Kultur in German sounds very differently from culture in 11lish. In the German word there is an allusion to what is authentic, true and profound as opposed to Zivilisation, the superficial good manners of the civilizing process. The Russian words kul`tura, ku`lturnyi and kul`turnost are strictly connected to Russia`s political and social events. As to italy, I wonder whether one can overlook the connection between the notion of culture and classical heritage, for what it contains of the ancient and the pagan, moderate and extreme, rational and delirious. In short, the cultural turn ends up by deconstructing not only the presumed unity of Western or European culture, but also that of the single national cultures. As a result, there is a revival of many of the secular trends of feeling and thinking that the processes of nationalization at work in every country in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century hid or removed.
Post-structuralism and deconstructionism have alerted us to the totalizing claims of philosophy and the human sciences. Therefore, it is somewhat puzzling that these same claims return under the banner of the encounter between aesthetics and Cultural Studies. The very idea of an Encyclopedia of Aesthetics appears to be evidence of a systematic ambition. Michael Kelly defends himself from this objection distinguishing the comprehensive, that is, unilateral, non sectarian point of view, from the systematic and totalizing one. Actually, only a small numberof the contributors are philosophers and, without doubt, it is within the interests of aesthetics to appear to be relatively autonomous from philosophy, just as it is in the interest of philosophy to take its distances from those who want to reduce it to a history of philosophy.
However, the questionable aspect is another and it emerges clearly in the entry by Ian Hunter on Cultural Studies (Kelly, 1998: I, 480-3), who sees a continuity between Schiller`s ideal of an aesthetic life proposed at the end of the eighteenth century and the program of Cultural Studies put forward by the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and chiefly by Raymond Williams in the Sixties. What Schiller`s aesthetics and Cultural Studies seem to have in common is an organic idea of society viewed as a totality endowed with completeness and immediacy. The aesthetic project of a harmonic life would condition the Cultural Studies program whose basic intention would be the naively humanist search for an existence that removes every conflict and every difference. Williams` advocacy of »the whole way of life« reveals itself as the replica of the eighteenth century`s »beautiful soul«, the famous figure of a spirit entirely reconciled with himself and the world that was ridiculed by Hegel and Nietzsche. Not even the »subcultural« developments of this orientation in social studies would succeed in fulfilling the premises of humanist aesthetics. The lifestyles of the youth subcultures would be an incorporation of the aesthetic dimension in the lived and spontaneous experience of the new generations. Thus, Cultural Studies would be reduced to importing sociological themes in aesthetics or to exporting aesthetic themes in the fields of anthropology, sociology and history.
If this were the case, aesthetics` presumed cultural turn would not be a turn at all, but only a further re-statement of something already entirely found in the Enlightenment and in pre-Romanticism. Philosophy, however, has intervened to disturb this idyllic scene first with German thinkers of conflict such as Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein, and later with the French theorists of structuralism and post-structuralism who have radically put into question the conciliatory, harmonizing and humanistic pretenses of eighteenth century aesthetics. For those who have been through the tormented paths that they have opened, there is no going back to vitalistic and organicistic naiveties. If a new phase of European Cultural Studies is indeed being opened, in which the aesthetic dimension plays an essential role, they will be able to say something adequate to the complexity of the contemporary world only by freeing themselves from cultural as well as from aesthetic ideology.
Published in ”Filozofski Vestnik” (ed. Aleš Erjacev), vol. XXVIII, Number11 2007, pp. 39-43.