At once universal and specific, transcendent as well as deeply historical, the property of individual feeling but also affecting the mass subject, “aesthetics” has been notoriously difficult to define. This imprecision explains why aesthetics have often been invoked as a progressive force that opens new conceptual horizons and just as often derided as a tired elitist dodge that preserves the status quo. The unevenness of the ground on which matters of beauty, perception, taste, and the sublime stand results from elemental fissures between art and politics. Such fissures may be more fantasy than actuality, however. When aesthetics are considered in terms of social practice, philosophy, and cultural criticism, they appear as profoundly material engagements with embodiment, collectivity, and social life.
Aesthetics are in their narrowest sense purely about the discernment of formal criteria such as unity, proportion, and balance within the domain of art. If we trace the term’s origins back to the German Romantic tradition of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich von Schiller, aesthetics seem a philosophical topic rather than a cultural conjuncture. Yet even this narrow sense resounds with expansive political and social possibilities. Schiller ( 1954, 25) correlates aesthetic education with “true political freedom,” and Kant ( 1952) orients aesthetic judgment around a shared sensibility that would hold true for all individuals, engendering feelings of the universal. This utopian potential found practical application in the reformist energies of the City Beautiful movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which attempted to unify, uplift, and, perhaps most crucially, “Americanize” the heterogeneous populations of urban immigrants. Theoretically, this emphasis on universality and transformation found its expression in the work of John Dewey ( 1980), who construed aesthetic experience as a vital encounter that challenged the fixity of custom and precedent.
These historical and theoretical currents merged in the efforts of pragmatists such as Jane Addams who, like Dewey, sought to make beauty and art a common feature of the modern social landscape. By linking magic lantern shows, art exhibitions, drama clubs, poetry readings, and lectures on art to the cultivation of social ethics, reformers hoped that aesthetics could play a generative role in the democratization of culture. By the start of the twentieth century, this repertoire expanded to include moving pictures, which were often heralded as the first truly mass art form. A central question for the political and cultural projects of both American studies and cultural studies is whether aesthetics can continue to play that role.
The narrow sense of aesthetics as a discourse on art thus leads almost inevitably to broader usages that understand the term to denote the entire “corporeal sensorium,” including affect and emotion, pain and pleasure, feeling and sensibility (Buck-Morss 1992, 5). This emphasis on broad human reactions and responses suggests the potential force of commonality as a universal feeling that collides with and energizes political positions. One way of understanding this emergence of the political within the aesthetic is to say that Kant’s idea of sensus communis ( 1952), a common standard of aesthetic judgment in which individual perception tallies with general taste, recalls Thomas Paine’s notion of “common sense” ( 1953), which marshals public sentiment for the purposes of revolution. Structured by familiar responses and shared stimuli, aesthetics represent the possibility of mass mobilization. Emanations of aesthetic politics—including worker rallies, carnivals, street theater, and mass demonstrations—challenge notions of the public sphere as a zone of rational debate and suggest the importance of performance and play to progressive social movements (Tucker 2010). But such actions echo with political ambivalence; even as collective feeling resounds with democratic energy, the hum of a mass unified—and manipulated—by emotion also carries more ominous overtones of totalitarian control, as Walter Benjamin ( 1968) predicted in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction in the context of the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Since this dire prediction about a fascist future, scholars of the United States’ past along with critics of aesthetics have reflected on the conflicted intersections among art, beauty, and democracy (Castronovo 2007; Greiman 2010; Rancière 2010; Scarry 2001).
In the nineteenth-century United States, the potentially transformative effects of aesthetic feeling in galvanizing political opinion appeared in literary sentimentalism. Animating a host of reforms from temperance to women’s rights, sentimentalism figured prominently in the antislavery crusade, culminating in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s directive that individuals confronted with the awesome task of defeating the monster of slavery begin by making sure that “they feel right” ( 1981, 624). Individual by individual, citizens could build a sensus communis that would change the world. The problem, of course, was that individual feeling could remain individualized, forever private, and never connected to shared action or thought. Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the poem that introduces his essay “Art,” seemed to imply that when art touches us, it reconciles and adjusts the individual to the social world as it is instead of reshaping the world in accordance with a common regard for justice or fairness. The duty of art, according to Emerson’s couplet, is “Man in Earth to acclimate, / And bend the exile to his fate” (1983, 429). Here, the politics that aesthetics produce come in the mode of resignation.
Identifying Emerson with this one-dimensional position ignores his belief that beauty could reinvent ordinary forms of social life. But it was a belief that took hold in the twentieth century among the New Critics, who stressed aesthetics as a formal mechanism of order and stability. “Aesthetic forms are a technique of restraint,” announced John Crowe Ransom (1965, 31), advancing the position that the human rush to action, overflow of emotion, and unpredictable stir of social life could all be reined in by beauty and our responses to it. Cast in this fashion, beauty and art become the conservative guarantors of the social world as it is and not sources for how it might be reimagined and reformed.
These lingering effects of social governance and political containment are what motivate some American studies and cultural studies scholars to critique aesthetics as a conservative strategy of retrenchment that justifies art’s putative evasion of political matters, mystifies class privilege as disinterestedness, and uses ideas of harmony and unity to excuse the status quo. As Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen framed the issue in their landmark collection Ideology and Classic American Literature (1986), the concentration on artistic qualities and literary effects among previous generations of critics diminished both the social impetus and the radical potential of literature. If we attend to the historicity of beauty and form, as this case against aesthetics goes, the scales of appreciation will drop from our eyes to reveal aesthetics as an evasion of culture. While this assessment is dead-on, it finds its target only by aiming at notions of aesthetics that are themselves culturally thin, cut off from larger—and potentially alternative—histories of form, emotion, and representation. In short, the cultural critique of aesthetics risks overlooking varied strategies of interpretation, expression, and collaboration enabled by the aesthetic project itself. As a central term for American studies and cultural studies, “aesthetics” enables a questioning of the forms by which we organize domains of politics and art in the first place.