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The third sister: beauty, and why the aesthetic matters

In the current critical/political atmosphere, the “aesthetic” has come to be regarded as the province of dandies and their descendants, not to do with the enormous difficulties of the here and now. What work, if any, as the sky threatens to collapse over our head, might the aesthetic do to help us out of this mess? Can one make the case that the aesthetic is not peripheral to all that matters in this tumultuous, difficult, and utilitarian world, but that it always has been and is still an urgently valuable element in it?

We have seen, particularly with the crisis of COVID—which closed cinemas, theaters, concert halls, and museums—how immediately and pressingly society manifested a deep need for the arts. They proved essential to the psychological wellbeing of millions of people, and their absence from public life had economic impact as well. People sought and found new ways to perform, to hear, to see those elements of social life, literature, film, theater, music, graphic art, for which they are now not eager to pay for in the education of their children.

On the one hand, in both England and America, the humanities, with their crucial aesthetic components in the arts, are regularly defunded for the sake of more obviously utilitarian studies. On the other hand, within the humanities themselves, the aesthetic components of the arts are being increasingly ignored in favor of more apparently urgent political problems. As Ankhi Mukherjee puts it, in much criticism “political…stands for literature that is not beautiful.” The Question of the Aesthetic argues that the aesthetic should be seen as a mode of knowledge—not incompatible with such currently inflammable issues as imperialism, or race, or gender, but as an important means to understanding them.

The peculiar value knowledge the aesthetic generates is not discursive and generalizing but singular, emotive, and humanizing. Knowledge of the aesthetic helps pose critical questions that disciplines and discourses inattentive to problems like form or “beauty” cannot. The aesthetic, as Herbert Tucker puts it, “can provide a salutary check on the rush to relevance in contemporary humanities study, which will labor to better effect, even in service to causes that summon it most urgently, as it redoubles attention to the resources of artistic form, and the unexpected truth that beauty harbors.”

The Question of the Aesthetic attempts to address this double difficulty—the idea that the aesthetic is peripheral to the urgencies of human life, and the idea that attention to it deflects attention from the issues that really matter. Although the conventional understanding of evolutionary development is that all species change as a result of fundamentally utilitarian pressures, a strong case can be made that the aesthetic sometimes trumps the utilitarian. Richard Prum argues that aesthetic preference, the desirability of the beautiful, has played a crucial evolutionary role, as on the model of Darwin’s sexual selection: new species have often emerged out of the preference of one sex for beauty in the other, as evidenced by the astonishing elaboration of the peacock’s wings.

But while this argument should be taken as one piece of evidence that the aesthetic is not only compatible with the fundamental needs of human life, but in many cases is a critical element in satisfying those needs, it should be supplemented with broader understanding. With their attention to the facts of history, to the language in which that history is embodied, to the very materials of art and the cultural and political and economic conflicts that mark the lives of everyone, art engages with the felt experience of the facts. Through aesthetic representation, unattended facts speak, or can speak, across cultures, opening to fresh understandings of the other. It is not by chance that various forms of art—in music, poetry, fiction, film—become the media through which human experience, in conflicts, oppression, liberation, and simple suffering or simple joy, are most forcefully articulated. The power of critique of such representation is critical to whatever future the world can work out for itself. The beautiful—the traditional subject of aesthetics—should be an unembarrassed sister of knowledge and ethics, and a vital condition for that intellectual and moral work.

“The humanities,” concludes Helen Small, “have a special interest in the experiences of beauty…as they alter the quality of our perception and understanding of the world—recognizing that what moves us is at once private and shared, conventionally determined and constantly subject to change. …It is in the process of acknowledging, discussing, debating, disputing aesthetic experience…that much of our social and political experience takes place. Critical to that thinking is the power aesthetic experience affords us to apprehend the idea of agency through language, and thus be in a position to respond better to the reality of injustice.”

Featured image: Ayush Tiwari on Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Ron Smith

    I am surprised that such an important essay on aesthetics should be so terribly written. The subject is extremely important, and Levine’s reasoning solid. But the sentences lack grace and–well, aesthetic appeal.

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