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December 12, 2011

This review was published in: Canadian Philosophical Reviews XIII (1993), No. 6. (December 1993, pp. 295-300).


Paul Crowther: Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. (214 + xiii pp.).

This is the first volume of an impressive project on the relation of art, philosophy and social change. In an on-going argument and reviewing several important aesthetic theories Paul Crowther in this book argues for the idea that aesthetics should be a kind of critical assessment of art works' experiential consequences. Although I go along with his resistance against postmodernist reasoning, which functions as the starting point of his book, beyond that, our ways often part. My disagreement, however, does not annul the evident quality of the argument in this work. It is recommended reading material for all those aestheticians who are interested in the cognitive and non-cognitive functionality of art works and in the possibility of any influence of art on societal change. I will now discuss the most crucial steps in Crowther's argument.

Postmodernists claim to have undone the alleged rigidity of modern categories, like that of the autonomous subject, but according to Crowther they reach this `achievement' by overemphasizing the fluidity of modes of knowledge and experience, and of their status as social constructs, but there may well exist flexible constants. Aesthetics can help with the analysis of these flexible constants, not by looking for the essences of art or aesthetic experience, but by supplementing our theoretical assessments with a critique of art. Crowther proposes to view aesthetic experiences as well as works of art as functions of critical awareness and of body-hold, an historicized version of Merleau-Ponty's much neglected notion of embodiment. Critical aesthetics actualizes the critical awareness involved in our aesthetic experiences. Art, defined in terms of originality, roots in the body-hold of the artist, who moulds his medium to solve technical problems traditional art forms confront him with.

Postmodernism involves only two theses, really. First, contemporary experience and sensibility are analyzed as imbued by the shocks generated by the rapid succession of mechanically reproduced events. This supposedly has alienated us from experiencing proximity to and reciprocity with objects. Although Crowther agrees with this analysis, his effort to heal alienation with critical aesthetics clearly involves a diversion from postmodern resignation. I will go into this shortly. The second trait of postmodern reasoning is its critique of categories as is, e.g., involved in Derrida's deconstruction of the subject as merely an effect of textual `différance'. This deconstruction meets with relevant criticism from Crowther, who points out that neither language nor différance are sufficient conditions for the subject, since there is too much coherence in our attitudes towards the world for our subjectivity to be but a never ending trace of text. The différance of language, this eternal referring, rather is an effect of body-hold, and the subject may at all times claim to reach the presence of some or other referent if sustained by the context.

Regarding art's relevance for the mending of alienation, then, Crowther observes that shock-effects are readily sought out in art appreciation even though in daily life one tries to render them harmless. He criticizes the formalist positions of Bell and Greenberg for their lack of historicism, and proceeds with Kant's account of aesthetic experience. According to Crowther "what Kant is describing are the logical and phenomenological outlines of a very fundamental experience. But he is describing the experience in its simplest and purest state - giving us, as it were, the prototype." (P. 60.) In my opinion this interesting observation deserves more deliberation. Perhaps Kant does not merely describe a prototype experience, but rather an ideal that regulates aesthetic discourse.

Contrary to Walter Benjamin Crowther thinks an artist is never just a producer, but one who in addition ought to be original (in the right way; a rightness we can only devise from a political and societal point of view, not from artistic ones). Traces of this originality deposit in his work, which clearly distinguishes art from normal artefacts where such traces of production normally disappear. It is the originality that informs our aesthetic experiences and that makes the relevant critical awareness politically effective as well. What the artist reproduces is his personal relation to socio-historical circumstances. Because of this in his work these circumstances are visible to the beholder in a transparent way. Crowther confines himself to the observation that some works `engage us profoundly but others do not, in so far as they simply repeat established stylistic tendencies and methods'. (P. 54). Inevitably, I think, the only criterion for artistic evaluation will be the beholder's own body-hold that, historically mediated though it may be, yet remains idiosyncratic. So the acclaimed transparency of the socio-historical meaning of a work of art we better conceive of as an interpretation to be extrapolated from some idiosyncratic experience in what appear to be rather strenuous ways, because if such interpretations are made `on first sight', they will easily be superficial and irrelevant.

Crowther's aesthetics, then, is critical in two ways: the awareness involved in art analysis is critical, and so is the philosophical analysis of the possibility of aesthetic experience in general, albeit in a Kantian sense. I have two questions here. The first, as to how these two senses of `critical' relate, and a further one, generated by the answer to the first, of why the critical awareness ought to be directed at some socio-political effectiveness. In my view a putting into perspective of one's body-hold would amply suffice to make art important for people. Perhaps the most crucial problem with Crowther's point of view, then, is this demand that art be politically effective in the first place.

The book then jumps to an analysis of that aesthetic value, the sublime, the existence of which, let alone its importance, I sincerely doubt. All the same, Crowther's treatment of the concept is sensitive and illuminating, and as we all know postmoderns such as Lyotard assign the notion a crucial place in their theory. So I will not keep it from you. Crowther elaborates on some crucial differences between the theories of the sublime of Kant and Burke. Kant analyzes the sublime in terms of our rational response, whereas Burke links it with psychologically intense feelings bound up with our sense of mortality. With Burke the sublime is existential. Crowther distinguishes mere shock, and pain from the aesthetic experience of them. Crucially, distance is said to facilitate our viewing a horrifying phenomenon as a spectacle for contemplation: it invests `the object with the character of representation'. In short, the sublime admits of voluntary solicitation, which pain and shock do not, and its enjoyment `does not presuppose the belief such states will issue in some specific kind of practical or sexual gratification'. (P. 124). As regards its functionality, according to Burke's existential theory the sublime helps against monotony. Crowther thinks this explains why eighteenth century philosophers have started paying attention to the sublime: as a weapon against aristocratic boredom. I find a less vulgar explanation in the slow decline of religious experiential categories and the desire of mankind to possess some anchorage for discourse. The religious connotations of the German `Erhabene' are by no means accidental. This might also, to some extent, explain the recent interest taken in the term.

At the end of his book Crowther exposes Lyotard's distinction between two modes of sublime, melancholic (a nostalgia for presence) and novatio (infinite experiment) as spurious in many ways, and a misconstruction of the Kantian sublime. He does sustain Lyotard's argument that we can connect the Kantian sublime with the Postmodern sensibility, as he sustains his analysis of postmodern sensibility: `The basis of [Postmodern] sensibility arises from the fact that ... reality is ... deciphered as the intersection of various complex levels of meaning.' (P. 163). According to Crowther in our postmodern days the sublime experience is subordinated to profit motives and to the demands of rapidly changing modes of transmission. Television facilitates disinterested enjoyment but at the same time diminishes the psychological impact of the sublime. Under its influence `our response may become more orientated towards marvelling at the technological means by which the spectacle is achieved, rather than at the spectacle itself'. (P. 131). Yet if Crowther is right in that the sublime invests `the object with the character of representation', what can be wrong with this? Sublimity will always involve some measure of marvel about the means of presentation of the spectacle. This makes it aesthetic in the first place. Perhaps we need a different account of the kind of experience provided by television. Again, this makes me wonder if anything resembling the sublime has ever existed at all.

Crowther agrees with the postmodern analysis that we live in a new period characterized by the disappearance of certain experiences that are more authentic, but he adds to it the claim that somehow new forms and possibilities of experiences have risen as well. I am not sure, however, if one can coherently make a claim such as the former, because apparently it is impossible to assess its truth. If certain experiences have vanished we cannot possibly find out what they were like, since we can no longer have them, and experiences can only be known by acquaintance. I stand to be convinced of the postmodernity of today's world if we are to understand it in terms of some loss of experiential authenticity. The whole idea is a Romanticist sham. My psychological hunch regarding those who complain about the loss of authentic experience in contemporary culture, is that they may actually be grieving over their own lost childhood ingenuousness. I do not think alienated experience is a philosophical problem. Then again, I find it rather remarkable to find that those who think it is propose some form of critical art appreciation as a cure. If alienation is a kind of deprivation of critical awareness of the objects we come across surely critical awareness cannot restore the scope of our experience. Crowther does not seem to provide a way out of this paradox. The again, the idea of alienation really is a soothing idea, and does not sustain a critical stance towards society at all. To know that one is incapable of experiencing properly relieves one from the need to even try. This belies the duty of happiness life puts us up with.

Regarding the political effect of art it seems to me that the bewilderment encountered in an aesthetic experience concerning the way we succeed to generate ever new meanings with limited symbolic systems may and will be of tantamount importance for the beholder, but only metaphorically will it be so for culture as a whole. Part of the reason for this restricted effectivity lies in the decisive role of the notion of body-hold. Crowther claims that body-hold is a basic, indeed the basic value in life, but he does not provide a clear definition of it. Is it the part played by the body whatsoever, as distinguished from the part played by the intellect, the bodily versus the mental? Surely it must consist in some special aspect of bodily motion if it is to be the source of meaning as Crowther says it is. Crowther's example of a baby learning a language may prove illuminating in its drawbacks. Although at first it is the baby's body that gives a grip on the objects in the world, not every one of its movements is equally important in the process of creating meaning. I would propose an elaboration of Kant's remarks on this problem. Clearly only those moments of bodily movement make out body-hold that have an existential functionality, that is, those that are marshalled by the subject's feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Only those bodily impulses and reactions lead to understanding that appeal to this `feeling of life', to borrow from Kant. So the ultimate basis of a meaningful grasp of the world is not the body but the emotional response to it: one's feeling good or bad. Perhaps the successful artwork, then, can be seen as enabling us an awareness of the ways our feeling of life is enhanced by the medium and subject matter of the work. Possibly Crowther will address this problem in his next book on `Art and Embodiment'.

Sometimes Crowther misses an opportunity to out-Kant Kant's aesthetic. For example, although he interestingly links Kant's notion of the aesthetic idea with the experience of sublimity he does not oppose the very distinction between beauty and the sublime as separate modes of experience, which he could have since Kant explicitly links aesthetic ideas and the (dependent) beauty of art. Also, according to Crowther there is a felt harmony not only in beauty but in the sublime as well, only this time it is not the harmony between imagination and understanding, but one between our capacities for `sensible' and `rational comprehension'. I have a hard time understanding the exact distinctions between these kinds of harmony. Again, I think this indicates the theoretical redundancy of the sublime.

The last postmodern idea under siege is the so-called `end of history' theme. Arthur Danto has argued that art has come to an end, because art's subject matter has changed to sheer self-reflection. Crowther, however, sees no reason for taking this self-reflection to imply that there can be no more creativity or development of art. He also thinks, secondly, that Danto is wrong in taking twentieth century art as a semi-philosophical endeavour. Crowther instead signals two main streams in Modernist art, neither one of which involves a discontinuity with the traditional `legitimizing discourse' directed at an elevation of the subject, bar only Concept Art and Minimal Art. (P. 184). These latter do involve a break with this `legitimizing discourse'. Aptly, Crowther does not find this `legitimizing discourse' problematic at all, on the contrary, he thinks it is part of the concept of art as we know it in Western culture. Wanting ... `To escape the legitimizing discourse ... would involve giving up art.' (P. 195). Thus with art's aim of elevating the subject, in the end Crowther returns to the relevance of body-hold for art, and of art for body-hold.

Apart from the observed flaws of some of its key notions this book puts into perspective with clear and convincing argument the creation and appreciation of art and its relation to society, and it critically appraises several relevant philosophical theories heaping proper scorn on postmodernist frivolousness.

The investigations were supported by the Foundation for Philosophical Research (SWON), which is subsidized by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

© Rob van Gerwen