An Aesthetic Defence of Popular Culture

reading mainly Richard Shusterman      

The 'aesthetics' department of philosophy seems to be a conservative domain of old and young fogies in which rock music still struggles for legitimation. On the surface aesthetics is a cool rationalisation of art and culture but beneath this facade is a visceral repulsion of the other. A physical and emotional reaction which is can hardly be accounted within the language of aesthetic discourse.

"In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others... which amounts to rejecting others as unnatural and therefore vicious. Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes." (Bourdieu 1979)

It was Emmanuel Kant(1724-1804) who established the liberal tradition of aesthetics. Aesthetic judgement for Kant presupposed particular cultural conditions provided by Western class privilege and theorised them as human nature.

The analytic tradition which followed Kant argued for a non rule-based aesthetics too subtle or complex to be formulated; implying it was something that was intuitive and a part of 'human nature', as he had defined it.  From a more egalitarian multi-culturally pluralist and post-modern viewpoint this places the dominant aesthetic as belonging to a elite minority tradition with an emphasis on the intellectual qualities of our experience. Within this tradition it was thought that the somatic aspects of culture tainted aesthetics with the impurity of 'lower emotions'.

Richard Shusterman's critique of Kant (1992) sees this aesthetic tradition as limited by its attempt to fit into academicism's need for objectivity, and its dismissal of art as process and experience. It defines the aesthetic with an intellectual bias which denies the somatic dimension of our experience.

Within analytic philosophy, which became the dominant mode of thought within the Kantian tradition, art was defined as whatever was legitimated as Art by the art world. For years the object, preferably medium sized dry goods, has been the guarantor of the objectivity of criticism - but it also blinkers our view to a very straight and narrow view of art.

Cultures which do not focus their efforts on object orientated production cannot even be considered as candidates for aesthetic criticism. Even when alien cultures do produce objects, the lack of immersion in these cultures by most of the critics ensures that their appreciation is shallow.

This alone ensures the apparent superiority of western high art as produced by its critical machinery and legitimating practices. We must now look more closely at aesthetics as a legitimating practice.

"Aesthetics (can be equated) with the philosophy of art, that is, abstract ideas and arguments regarding the fundamental nature of art, its basis and role in human culture, and, where extant, related standards for evaluating art." (Anderson 1990)

Using this definition Richard Anderson surveyed aesthetic theories in non-western settings and found that aesthetics exists everywhere. In complex societies, which have the tools of literacy, the theories may be explicit but in oral societies the aesthetic is tacit and must be noted within the discourse of daily life and 'between the lines' of traditional myths. In cultures which do not have a class of theoreticians; "aesthetic must be sought in what Clyde Kluckhohn and other called 'implicit philosophy'"(Anderson 1990).

He goes on to identify four categories of aesthetic principles in the philosophy of western art: Mimetic; Pragmatic; Emotionalist; Formalist. These same principles, which are drawn up in relation to high art, seem to also underlay the theoretical foundations of popular art.

"Despite noteworthy stylistic and sociological differences, the two types of art derive from the same theoretical foundation"(Anderson 1990). This is supported by Theodor Gracyk who cleverly argues that good taste into a narrow locality and shows that the epithet 'bad taste' can rarely be justified (Gracyk 1990).

Richard Shusterman finds in John Dewey's book, Art as Experience (1934) parallels with such European theorists as Theodor Adorno, Fredreich Nietszche, Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, and a critique of the dominant Kantian Analytic Aesthetics. Art is argued to be more about experience than collecting or criticism. So with this as a guide we can define art as that which gives us aesthetic experiences.

Dewey roots his definition of the aesthetic within the human organism. He points out that aesthetics must have a physiological stratum. We are reminded how the conditions of class separation are reflected in the characteristics of its aesthetics; in that the intellectual is valorised at the expense of the physical/emotional which is bestialised.

The legitimate aesthetic was argued by Kant to be superior to a common aesthetic in which the pleasure to be gained is through an object's sensory pleasures, its usefulness or its meaning as a sign. In the legitimate aesthetic the important quality is one of 'disinterestedness'. The satisfaction is not connected to bodily pleasures, nor to social necessities but to an "elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world"  which "takes the bourgeoisie denial of the social world to its limit" (Bourdieu 1979). The owning class aesthetic is interested in the representation and disinterested in the relation between the representation and reality. The aesthetic applied to all areas of culture functions as a way of legitimating social status by reinforcing this disconnection. (For a thorough historical/philosophical discussion see Caygil 1989.)

Dewey on the other hand argues for a global instrumental worth; Art which "serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living"(Dewey 1934). Science has dominated our development but "the final measure of the quality of... culture is the arts which flourish" (ibid). Dewey carries out an assault on dichotomous thinking that has been generated by the separated spheres of art and science and further by the compartmentalisation of knowledge and cultural practice into separate bureaucratic forms.

"Art becomes, in Dewey's mordant phrase, 'the beauty parlours of civilisation,' covering with an opulent aesthetic surface its ugly horrors and brutality." (Shusterman 1992)

Dewey typifies our high art culture as a museum culture which privileges the fixed material object over the processes and experience of art.

"For Dewey, the essence and value of art are not in the mere artifacts we typically regard as art, but in the dynamic and developing experiental activity through which they are created and perceived."(ibid)

Here we have another class orientated difference: Working class tradition is both interpenetrating and typically unseen because its aesthetic value lies exactly in those evanescent and discursively elusive processes which are not always reflected or contained within their material outcomes.