Thursday, November 7, 2019

Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension, and everyday aesthetics

The key passage in Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension (originally 1977 in German, 1978 in English…Marcuse’s first work in aesthetics, a response to Adorno and Benjamin) for everyday aesthetics is:  “In  this sense art is ‘art for art’s sake’ inasmuch as the aesthetic form reveals tabooed and repressed dimensions of reality:  aspects of liberation.  The poetry of Mallarmé is an extreme example; his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures – a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle.”  (239)   Mallarmé of course represents Modernism and he is precisely the person attacked by Lukacs.  The passage for me is key in that art for art’s sake becomes something a bit different from what we might see in Clive Bell.  It is a liberation, a new reality principle, and also a feast of sensuousness.  So the shattering of the everyday is directed to a new liberated sensuous everyday.  I am not so much interested here in fine art as in what the art does to life:  it reveals something repressed and points to a new reality principle.  This is the bohemian revolt, the hippie revolt which was formed in the early seventies.  (1977 is really 1969-74 here.)   So, “a pleasure in decay, in destruction, in the beauty of evil; a celebration of the asocial, of the anomic” is itself the “secret revolution of the bourgeois against his own class.”  This is Kerouac's On the Road, Ginsberg, Burroughs.   Marcuse also describes this as “ingression of the primary erotic-destructive forces which explode the normal universe of communication and behavior.”  (240)  This “rebellion against the social order” reveals Eros and Thanatos as “beyond all social control” and “invokes needs and gratifications which are essentially destructive….even death and the devil are enlisted as allies in the refusal to abide by the law and order of repression.”  And Marcuse believes this is “one of the historical forms of critical aesthetic transcendence.”  If we grant some of the Marxist fundamentals, i.e. that our capitalist system is one of exploitation and repression as well as alienation and false consciousness, then it is absurd to construct a theory of everyday aesthetics where the dominant model of the everyday is simply accepted.  Avant-garde art shows the way, i.e. material (not spiritual) transcendence.  What is the everyday?  It is the experience of what is conditioned by the social.  So if art transcends the specific social content and form it does so by breaking the ordinary everyday.  The ordinary everyday tells us (i.e. those in my culture) that driving a car is inevitable:  but at the same time we need to be broken out of this to survive the onslaught of global warming.  Art can help by revealing libidinous energies that are repressed by a culture of conformity.  “Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society – it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity.”  (237)  So art is committed to transformation of the everyday.   

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