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.

READING—Postmodern Critiques of Modernity and Modernism


  • Kant, I. (1784). What is Enlightenment? In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 70–75.
  • Lyotard, J-F. (1984). “Introduction.” In The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. XXIII–XXV and 78–82.
  • Foucault, M. (1986). “Preface” and “Classifying”. In The Order of Things. London: Routledge. pp. XV–XXIV and 125–165.
  • Borges, J. L. (1964). The Library of Babel. In Labyrinths. London. pp. 78–86.
  • Foster, H. (1983). Postmodernism: A Preface. In Foster, H. ed. The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend. pp. IX–XVI.
  • Owens, C. (1980). The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 315–328.
  • Huyssen, A. (1984). Mapping the Postmodern. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 329–337.
  • Bourriaud, N. (2002). “Foreword” and “Relational Form”. In Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presses du Réel. pp. 7–10, 11–24.


Over the past few weeks we’ve been considering various strands of postmodernism and their challenges to modernity (most of the following, up to the subtitle ‘This Week,’ comes from my notes from Astrid Schmetterling’s lecture).

Beginning with Kant’s promotion of the responsibility of every person for their own acts and development, the establishment of the modern world and Modernity’s meta-narratives is initiated:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.. . . For this enlightenment . . . nothing is required but freedom . . . the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. (Kant, p.70, 71)

Moving on to Modernism itself and discussing Enlightenment problematics – gender, colonialism, class oppression – a series of exclusionary practices dealt with by Foucault in his writings. Foucault represents the historicist turn of Post-Structuralism, away from Structuralism’s flawed critique of Modernism – it was seen not to have broken with Modernism’s notions of truth, universality and timelessness. Borges, I think, fictionalises the potential consequences of Post-Structuralism, especially through the works of Jacques Derrida.

According to Lyotard, Postmodernity displays an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, and:

Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (Lyotard, p.XXV)

For Lyotard, Post-Modernism works against consensus, resulting in no privileged discourse and no general theory of justice. There can only ever be a provisional judgement in cases – the heterogeneous over homogeneous and universal.

Two styles of Post-Modernism are proposed by Hal Foster, one of reaction and another of resistance. “Reaction” is conservative, and entails going back to a pre-modern period for influences, with a resultant decontextualisation of styles. “Resistance” questions rather than exploits cultural codes.

This week

This week we’re completing this series of texts by looking at Owens, Huyssen and Bourriaud. The following are some very short notes from my own readings of each text.


For Owens, an “allegorical impulse” has reemerged in contemporary culture after its suppression in modern theory. He provisionally defines allegory as occurring “whenever one text is doubled by another” (Owens, p. 316):

. . . allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary text in terms of its figural meaning. (Owens, p. 317)

In the visual arts allegory is characterised as “appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization”. The allegorical impulse “challenges the security of the foundations upon which aesthetics is erected.”


Huyssen suggests that the available theories of postmodernism (as equated with poststructuralism or the writings of Lyotard) have only been critiques of modernism rather any significant breaks with it. To go beyond these, one must look at aspects of contemporary culture and see that they “raise the question of cultural tradition and conservation in the most fundamental way as an aesthetic and a political issue” (Huyssen, p. 332), this exemplifies the postmodern sensibility of our time and is different from “both modernism and avantgardism”.

As with Foster, Huyssen promotes a postmodernism of resistance, not simply in terms of “negativity or non-identity à la Adorno” (Huyssen, p. 336), but bringing together politics and aesthetics in heightened creative tension.


The space of social interactions represents for Bourriaud the arena of contestation for contemporary art. He asks:

… is it still possible to generate relationships with the world, in a practical field art-history traditionally earmarked for their “representation”? (Bourriaud, p. 9)

Bourriaud represents a fairly recent development in the critique of contemporary art, the recognition of the “inter-human” (Bourriaud, p. 22) or “trans-individual” (Bourriaud, p. 18) aspects of works. He states that:

Relational Aesthetics does not represent a theory of art, this would imply the statement of an origin and destination, but a theory of form.

He contrasts Thierry de Duve’s “authoritarian” view of art, “for whom any work is nothing more than a ‘sum of judgements’” by the artist, to a concept of the artistic form “only assuming its texture (and only acquires a real existence) when it introduces human interactions” (Bourriaud, p. 22).

Grant Kester takes a similar (if less philosophical and more historiographical) view, in his book Conversation Pieces1. In the Introduction he narrows his concern to “works that define dialogue itself as fundamentally aesthetic (as opposed to works centered on collaboratively producing paintings, sculptures, murals, etc.)” (p. 13).

In the process he highlights the way modern art, with its avant-garde tendency to stall communication, has been theorised and how these theories have since thwarted an effective consideration of dialogue-based artworks:

… the antidiscursive orientation of the avant-garde artwork, its inscrutability and resistance to interpretation, is staged in opposition to a cultural form that relies on reductive or clichéd imagery to manipulate the viewer (advertising, political propaganda, kitsch, and so on). … This paradigm … has made it difficult to recognize the potential aesthetic significance of collaborative and dialogical art practices that are accessible without necessarily being simplistic.

  1. Kester, G. (2004). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. California: University of California Press.