The return of aesthetics

In an earlier post, I noted that Catherine Belsey’s keynote speech at the International Society for Cultural History conference in Ghent this August advocated a renewed attention to literary form and the utopian aspects of fictional worlds. This autumn’s issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly (59:3, Fall 2008) contains an article that thinks along similar lines.

Hugh Grady’s “Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics: The Case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (subscription required) acknowledges that the idea of the aesthetic is often regarded as precisely the opposite of a political reading of a literary text. Aestheticism tends to be associated with formalist approaches that discussed literature as isolated from its cultural context – as a self-contained work of art. Grady, however, proposes a revaluation of aesthetics. He introduces the notion of “impure aesthetics” as a way to avoid a return to formalism. Impure aesthetics, he writes, is “aesthetics conceived as creative of an imagined realm separate from empirical reality, but one that draws its materials from that reality.” (275). This approach does not view a work of art as unified, but takes from current theory the idea that a literary text is disunified and contains internal conflicts.

Although Grady thereby pays tribute to new historicism and especially cultural materialism, like Belsey, he is also critical of their tendency to read literary texts and aesthetic themes purely as vehicles for ideology. The elision of the boundary between artwork and the society that produced it, in his view has led to the loss of possibilities to think about art’s utopian potential – “its ability to create visions of the nonexisting, to embody desire and not just received ideas” (276). The article analyses A Midsummer Night’s Dream – not to attempt to find a unity in the play’s various materials and styles – but to argue that in its representation of the differences between the aesthetics and spaces of the fairy world and the world of Athens, the play offers a theoretical model of the relation between the aesthetic and the larger social world.

I am not entirely sure how the argument that one of the chief characteristics of the play is that it “starkly contrasts an aestheticized, utopian vision of potential harmony with a familiar world of law and ideology” or that “a counterfactual and comic realm can help clarify our unmet needs by conceptualizing their fulfillment in an artifactual, unreal form” adds to traditional interpretations of the forest as a magical world in which the laws and logic of Athens do not apply. What I do find interesting, is that Hugh Grady, like Catherine Belsey, sees in the creation of fictional worlds a possibility for rethinking existing ideologies – both, I think, see fiction as able to step outside of existing ideologies, to create new perspectives. Grady writes, for example, about the way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream can make us (early modern or present spectators/readers?) aware of our own ideologies by offering alternatives:

Shakespeare makes a distinction between a utopian or aesthetic sexuality unrestrained by marriage and a social, “human” world where marriage is the only solution to desire in unconstrained circulation. The result is one of the fundamental possibilities of aesthetic representation: to distantiate us from the familiar human world, to lead us to imagining other modes of living and loving, to look critically into the received ideologies of love and marriage.

I think that both Belsey and Grady would say that the potential of art (Grady’s term), fiction or literature (Belsey used these almost interchangeably) to step outside of a culture’s ideological framework and to offer new concepts and perspectives is enabled by complexity, by the mixing of genres and styles within a work of art, but also by what Grady calls “the internal clashes and the insubordination of repressed materials” (276). This return of aesthetics, then, is based in notions of friction, conflict and disunity, rather than in well-wrought works of art that can be read as unified wholes.

Grady and Belsey are not the only critics to advocate a return to aesthetics in literary theory. Grady’s notes includes references to such works  as James Soderholm, ed., Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997); Michael Clark, ed., Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000); Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); and John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, ed., The New Aestheticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).