From Walter Benjamin:
The place occupied in Goethe’s writings by his scientific studies is the one which in lesser artists is commonly reserved for aesthetics. This aspect of Goethe’s work can be appreciated only when one realizes that, unlike almost all other intellectuals in this period, he never really made his peace with the idea of art as “beautiful appearance.” What reconciled poetry and politics in his eyes was not aesthetics, but the study of nature.
The notion of a reconciliation of art and politics might be the most important animating idea in the art world of the last fifty years; not to mention surrealism, the Russian avant-garde and the anarchist streak in classic modernism, all of which take us back over a hundred years, or Rimbaud-Pissarro-Courbet, who will give us even deeper roots. For aesthetics as the bridge there are any number of contemporary philosophers, most of whom derive heavily from Adorno. Robert Hullot-Kenter, translator of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and a very strong thinker in his own right, once told me that aesthetics was the only way to save the Marxist project, a remark which left me wondering. But actually, on recollection I’m not sure if he said that art was the necessary thing instead. In any case, an un-theorized, half-conscious belief in such a reconciliation possesses many of the most prominent art historians and critics, such as those who see art as communicative action in the public sphere—social art historians. Boris Groys distinguishes between aesthetics, which he sees as contemplative, and the interpretation of art as discursive practice, the latter of which could give us different grounds for reconciliation, but it may also be that today aesthetics has expanded to include the taking of social positions in criticism. In light of all this, Benjamin’s observation is very striking. Not to mention Goethe’s practice. How it is supposed to work I’m not sure, though, as Chris Gergley rightly pointed out to me, the term “nature” is not as current as it used to be, nor does it have the meaning it did.