Alternative Aesthetics: An Introduction

by Reinaert de V.

This, again, is a collaboration with my great American friend Aurelio Madrid. He will be co-posting this series on his stellar blog “Luctor et Emergo [Part I]” – of course, the presentation will be all his own. Another person I would like to mention and thank is the Dutch artist Bert Jacobs, whose highly original and commendable work he gave me the permission to use throughout this series. His artwork will not only serve to illustrate and enliven this text, but also point to the fact that despite all the ‘gloom and doom‘ art is still very much alive and kicking – something which, by the way, Aurelio’s art also attests to. This project has been long overdue so without further ado.


"Grootmeesters", 2010, by Bert Jacobs

“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”

(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)


This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferated against – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.

Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel[1], but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20th century.

"Onder de douche I & II", 2010, by Bert Jacobs

This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs[2] – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.

In the coming weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.

[1] “Like everything else, art is a human product, a human secretion; it is our body which sweats out the beauty of our works. Our body changes according to the climate and customs, and, therefore, its secretions change also. That is to say that the work of Tomorrow cannot be that of today; you can neither formulate a rule nor give it a precept…” Émile François Zola (1840–1902), in Mon Salon” (1866). See in this context also The Rise of Modernity, part II for the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.

[2] “The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man (re)gains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.