aesthetics and futility

Some quotes from Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

On the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), David Hume (1711–1776) and Edmund Burke (1729–1797):

What art is not able to offer, in that ideological reading of it known as the aesthetic, is a paradigm of more general social significance – an image of self-referentiality which in an audacious move seizes upon the very functionlessness of artistic practice and transforms it to a vision of the highest good. As a form of value grounded entirely in itself, without practical rhyme or reason, the aesthetic is at once eloquent testimony to the obscure origins and enigmatic nature of value in a society which would seem everywhere to deny it, and a utopian glimpse of an alternative to this sorry condition. For what the work of art imitates in its very pointlessness, in the constant movement by which it conjures itself up from its own inscrutable depths, is nothing less than human existence itself, which (scandalously for the rationalists and Utilitarians) requires no rationale beyond its own self-delight. For this Romantic doctrine, the art work is most rich in political implications where it is most gloriously futile.1

On Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805):

The aesthetic is a kind of creative impasse, a nirvanic suspension of all determinacy and desire overflowing with entirely unspecific contents. Since it nullifies the limits of sensation along with its compulsiveness, it becomes a kind of sublime infinity of possibilities. In the aesthetic state, ‘man is Nought, if we are thinking of any particular result rather than of the totality of his powers, and considering the absence of any specific determination’2; but this negativity is thereby everything, a pure boundless being which eludes all specificity. Taken as a whole, the aesthetic condition is supremely positive; yet it is also sheer emptiness, a deep and dazzling darkness in which all determinations are grey, an infinity of nothingness. The wretched social condition which Schiller mourns – the fragmentation of human faculties in the division of labour, the specialization and reifying of capacities, the mechanizing and dissociating of human powers – must be redeemed by a condition which is, precisely, nothing in particular. (108)

  1. Eagleton, Terry (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, p.65. All subsequent references to this text will be given parenthetically after quotations.
  2. Schiller, Friedrich (1967) On the Aesthetic Education of Man, ed. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. Oxford, p.146.
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