Science and Aesthetics

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.

Goethe’s Color Wheel 1810

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One Response to Science and Aesthetics

  1. Shep Steiner says:

    I thought I would add to your post on aesthetics, politics, and nature, or what Benjamin marks as “the place occupied by Goethe’s scientific studies.” I think I can expand the conversation in a number of directions. The key term, which I borrow from Deconstruction and which one can use to bracket or frame the problem is philosophical aesthetics. Here one gets a very clear sense of the problem of “place” Benjamin talks about, both because aesthetics is not treated as an endpoint in itself but something to be investigated, and because aesthetics functions as one of a number of place holders that occupy the same place occupied by Goethe’s scientific studies.

    Jacques Lacan provides one of many departures. As is well known he believed that science begins with the “real,” which is another way of saying what Benjamin says about Goethe. This is a point pressed on many occasions and in some complexity by Jacques Alain Miller, the editor of Lacan’s Seminars. Jacques Ranciere’s Politics of the Aesthetic is perhaps the most widely known contemporary work that deals with these issues. The suggestion is that politics can be mapped on to the space of the aesthetic. Whether or not politics can be completely substituted with the aesthetic as some of Ranciere’s best readers suppose is another question. And of course I leave out the many very poor readers of Ranciere who do not even get this, because of a lack of dialectical subtlety in their method.

    Paul de Man’s notion of “aesthetic ideology” is perhaps the most wide-ranging handle for thinking the problem of this place-holder. As is well known de Man presses the problem of scientific epistemology, mathematics, Kantian aesthetics, the absolutely large and absolutely small in Pascal, etc. In other words it is an attempt to find philosophical aesthetics lurking within and beyond a whole range of scientific languages. Given Benjamin’s phrasing of Goethe’s project, we might say de Man’s project studies the science of science. In Andrzej Warminski’s introduction to de Man’s book, Warminski tells us that de Man’s original working title for the book was “Aesthetics, Rhetoric, Ideology,” and that he eventually drops “rhetoric“ from his title. Not to diminish its role, but precisely to mark its crucial role in and as an aesthetic suture that performs a silent but deadly role in every aspect of enlightenment and post-enlightenment thought. This is essential to de Man’s notion of rhetoric, and it builds partly upon Benjamin’s and others arguments for allegory over the symbol, which has of course nothing to do with the many post-modern understandings of allegory that art history has suffered from. For the symbol in Benjamin’s sense is nature (but only in the Coleridgean sense put forth in Statesman’s Manual and hence of religious origins) and science departs from it as an allegorical quest for answers that are necessarily unanswerable but necessarily posed nevertheless. One of my favorite de Man quotes that comes from a class he was teaching called “Aesthetic Theory from Kant to Hegel” and that included Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory at Yale in 1982 turns on this complex of problems, but reduces them into a very abbreviated formulation. He says: “Political theory is in the hands of the aesthetes.”

    Gayatri Spivak is someone else who forefronts these problems and has done so most crisply to mind in her memorium to Jacques Derrida in Artforum in 2005. Her version of things, which is part of the legacy she would have us be especially attentive to in Derrida, renames the place holder the classroom, a notion obviously akin to both de Man and Ranciere’s political and ideological conceptions of the aesthetic and something that permits her to open up the notion to a greatly expanded scope: teleo-poiesis being the instrument to be used for her version of the new science.

    T. J. Clark’s work on Cezanne’s landscapes and his more recent work on Picasso and Truth also stands out for me in terms of these kind of questions where science intersects with aesthetics and politics. In his work on Cezanne we feel especially the pressure of positivism. Thus he quotes the painter in a letter to Emile Bernard of 1906 saying: “It is only proving what one thinks that presents real difficulties. So I continue my studies.” In Farewell to an Idea on the other hand, Clark equates modernism itself with the placeholder we are talking about. And needless to say modernism is not a term that Clark tries in any way to salvage. On the contrary, and especially in the chapter on Malevich, modernism is equated with the advanced logic of terror of the nation state.

    I could go on by bringing on a whole host of symptomatic formulations that equate the aesthetic suture with the political, the ethical, the performative, the feminine, the phenomenological, or finally as aesthetic experience itself, which one sees in the historical writing of Clement Greenberg, or the piggy backing of aesthetic experience with phenomenology that characterizes the early criticism of Michael Fried. The point is that when one actually takes the time to line up the very many attempts to theorize and give value to the empty place-holder which is the aesthetic suture, it seems clear that all of these various projects tend not to stick for very long and to simply bounce off the slippery problem they name. Which is another way of saying that there are a lot of symbolists still around. We need to be bigger than this: a meta-theoretical perspective on all of the minor dramas that emerge is required. One needs to accept as Benjamin and Goethe did, that nature or the symbol was merely a pretext for scientific (read: allegorical) study.

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