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ADefenseofAestheticProgress

ADefenseofAestheticProgress

byMartinSeel


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Source: PRAXISInternational(PRAXISInternational),issue:4/1986,pages:416425,onwww.ceeol.com.

A DEFENSE OF AESTHETIC PROGRESS*


Martin Seel "There is no progress in art, although there are many kinds of artistic progress." For an aesthetics which is centred on autonomous works of art this minimalist interpretation of the concept of aesthetic progress is commonplace. On this view only the movement of art towards autonomy counts as true aesthetic progress; such progress takes place to the extent that the creation and perception of art frees itself froIl! pre-existing institutional demands. Aesthetic practice then no longer deals with objects that are to be taken as artistically more or less perfect realizations of a socially given mimetic or anamnetic function; it understands the work of art as a unique production, and its beauty as a beauty free of function. Excellent works of art stand on their own; as long as they are perceived as artworks they cannot be conceived of as stages of a general development (of art or society). Thus, according to this frequently held view, there is no progress in art, although there is no doubt progress on the part of the artist in inventing and bringing forth novel forms of beauty. This view is not entirely mistaken; but it has difficulties in answering three questions with which the uncompromising denial of the progress of art itself is directly confronted. First, how can progress in art be measured when there is no progress of art? Second, how is the relation between works of art-whether old or new-to be described positively if no general line of development can explain the coexistence of the forms of beauty? Third, can the problem of aesthetic coexistence truly be solved without a reformulation of the idea of progress? By "aesthetic coexistence" I mean not only the simultaneous presence of different aesthetic styles at a given time but also the continuing validity of works of art which have originated in different periods. I should like to show that only if this last question is answered negatively can the two earlier questions be answered satisfactorily. The only alternative to the belief in aesthetic progress is an alternative understanding of aesthetic progress.
I. Artistic Purpose and Aesthetic Function

In his two lectures on "Ideas of Progress and their Impact on Art" E. H. Gombrich argues that talk of aesthetic progress has a clear sense only when it involves the achievement of a particular end, which artistic effort and its products serve. According to Gombrich, this idea of aesthetic progress is based upon an "instrumentalist" concept of art. This concept plays a role particularly in the writings of Vasari and his followers in the history of art.
* Translated by Cathrine Wilson.
Praxis International 6:4 January 1987
0260-8448 $2.00

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For Vasari, Gombrich writes, painting has "admittedly a technical function, but like every such function, it must serve a purpose. It is the purpose of Christian art to present the holy personages and above all the holy stories convincingly to the viewer and by this means as it were to bring him to witness the deeds and sufferings of the saints or likewise the ancient heroes, upon which he ought to reflect. The impression of physical presence, the mastery of color and light, the capacity to bring to view supernatural beauty are not ends in themselves, but serve the function which the culture has assigned to painting and sculpture."l For Gombrich too the idea of the general progress of art is empty-artistic progress is progress of certain arts at certain times, relative to a purpose assigned to them. Only where art pursues a cultural or even a moral end are criteria given by means of TNhich progress in art is determinable. 2 In opposing an extreme concept of aesthetic autonomy Gombrich in the final analysis ties the concept of art to the possibility of progress in his sense, and his argument can be summarized as follows: There is artistic progress where a purpose is externally assigned to art; and art (which deserves its name) only exists where the artistic effort is carried out within the context of a cultural purpose and is therefore understandable as the "rational search" for a perfect solution to a given problem. 3 Following this line of thought, one might argue that although there is no general aesthetic progress, there are sequences of artistic development which are determined and determinable by the unity of a simultaneously aesthetic and non-aesthetic problem. 4 If we overlook for a moment the instrumentalist interpretation of Gombrich, this suggestion might appear to be an acceptable solution to the problem of progress as far as it concerns art. It seems acceptable, however, only on account of a simplification which the recent history of art - at least - dramatically contradicts. Sequences, that is, coexist and interfere with one another in a way which makes it impossible to clarify the central concepts concerning art within the paradigm of only one of these sequences. In other words, the theory of art must not slide over the problem of aesthetic autonomy so carelessly as it does in Gombrich's lectures. For what is called "aesthetic autonomy" arises precisely when it becomes self-evident to those who are concerned with art that styles and developments of art do indeed coexist not only historically but aesthetically. This (in a way still ongoing) process of aesthetic autonomy is not only irreversible, but implies essentially a progress in aesthetic practice. With the emancipation of art from (the idea of) a single sequence the function of art surely changes, without however becoming functionless. Its traditional function is radicalized in that it overcomes its determination by definite ends. Along with the pluralization of aesthetic sequences, an aesthetic purpose becomes identifiable which is no longer reducible to concrete pre-existing demands. It becomes evident that the fate of art is to give representations of valid perspectives on the world that cannot be transformed into mere representations of the world. 5 Such an analysis of a generalized aesthetic function has been the core of the philosophical treatment of art at the latest since .Kant and his followers. A main result of this point of view is that works

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of art offer articulations of lifeworld experiences in that they reveal constellations of meaning which are constitutive of (or thus come to be constitutive of) life-forms and existential situations. 6 To be sure, especially in modern art we have many cases where, at a second level of articulation, the aesthetic mode refers to itself, as when the work of art additionally or exclusively discloses situations or features of aesthetic experience. Nevertheless, it has always been a conceptual confusion to conceive the self-reflective fulfillment of the aesthetic function as the paradigm-case of aesthetic articulation----even in the age of classical modernity. What is more important in our context is that although the autonomous function of art (before and after classical modernity) remains a cultural one, it is neither reducible to the elucidation of moral value nor is it thinkable that this function could be fulfilled by one aesthetic sequence alone. If these remarks are not entirely misdirected, an instrumental conception of art is rather implausible. It is the purpose of artistic activity to fulfill the purpose of art-but not to fulfill a purpose which is given independently from the activity of artistic invention. When Titian is painting a picture which is supposed to represent the ascension of Maria, he is painting a picture on this well-known subject which reveals an experience which was not available before painting the picture, but which only becomes available with it. The purpose of this picture did not exist before; as long as there is any evidence, that is, that the content of this acsension-of-Maria-picture is entirely different from all its predecessors. What is given to the painter and what he was bound to as one of his time, is merely a relatively definite purpose for pictures in general-a cultural interpretation of the aesthetic function. In serving this function, problems of choosing the right means arise in manifold ways; but the works of art in whose creation these questions arise are not themselves means to achieve the end of art; they are media (or instances) of the aesthetic function. Correspondingly, the making of an artwork does not fit into the scheme of using means to an end, since the end that is achieved in using a set of specific means is discernable in the best case only at the end of the work. Therefore the central meaning of aesthetic rationality cannot be the use of means for definite ends. Nor can it be limited to the production of aesthetic objects. In its full-blooded meaning, aesthetic rationality is the capacity for the understanding evaluation (verstehende Beurteilung) of the beautiful and successful (des Gelungenen), a form of rationality in which artists and the public participate equally. 7 In view of the preceding, it can be seen that instances of progress in art are dependent on progress in aesthetic perception, which itself is to be understood as a specific feature of cognition. This cognition is a twofold one. On the one hand, it is that which is conveyed through the successful (das Gelungene) work of art. This cognition-on the other hand-is possible only together with the insight that the artwork concerned is indeed successful. Corresponding to the determination of aesthetic function already given, those works of art are accomplished or successful which lend expression to-and thereby conveyan essential perspective on the world we inhabit at the present. Every concept of aesthetic sequence must always presuppose such an experience or ideal of

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aesthetic excellence. For it is the very meaning of aesthetic sequences that they are a development towards the aesthetically better and best. So even if one assumes that an aesthetic sequence begins with one type of aesthetic excellence and ends with a new kind of aesthetic perfection, it is never from the history of this sequence alone that criteria of aesthetic progress may be extracted. Before the progressive movement of this sequence becomes recognizable, the original aesthetic event, that is, the more or less excellent products of a new' aesthetic project must already themselves have been recognized. The internal criteria or standards which allow us to distinguish normatively between stages of an artistic development ask for and are dependent upon external procedures of justification-procedures, to be sure, not external to art and its perception, but external to the sequence thus established. Because this is so, the concept of aesthetic progress cannot be explained by developments that take place within such sequences. Progress in sequences of art history only exists because there exists progress in art between these sequences. This progress is in equal measure one of art criticism and art production. Such progress does not move in a straight line, but takes place in the contrastive perception of the successful and the beautiful, and thus in the enrichment of our cognitive grasp of the situational features of our present world. What the meaning of progress between sequences is, I would like to clarify in the following by means of three rather extreme examples.

11. Aesthetic Coexistence


Anyone who has a more than superficial acquaintance with art has encountered works which are not only entirely different from one another but which appear to exist in conflict with one another. Nevertheless they are experienced as in equal measure successful. In my opinion, an answer to the question of aesthetic progress is only possible when one takes as touchstone for this problem the most tension-filled cases of aesthetic coexistence, that is, if one takes as paradigmatic for aesthetic evolution the case that is traditionally regarded as the plain counterexample to it. I begin with an example from contemporary literature. The writers John Updike and Thomas Pynchon have so little in common that they, as represented through their works, have quite a lot in common. Their (best) works stand for opposing types of contemporary literature. Updike's Rabbit-trilogy belongs to the tradition of realistic narration, while in Pynchon's novels the excessive art of constructing literary pandemonia is revived in a new way. According to the usual understanding, Updike is a "traditional," Pynchon by contrast an "avant-garde" writer. Now there may certainly be readers who are of the opinion that the esoteric art of Thomas Pynchon clearly falsifies the commercially-successful word production of his colleague Updike. Such judgments are in fact constantly met with when it is said that Musil has eclipsed Thomas Mann, or Schonberg Stravinsky, Newman Mondrian, or Bernhard BoIl. But this kind of judgment in the present theoretical connection is uninteresting. The interesting case is the one in which both aesthetic antipodes are acknowledged. How is it that we

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can include two works which (seem to) exclude one another in the class of the successful? Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow recounts the implosion of a world going to pieces through over-organization, a world which is to be understood as the legacy of the persisting rationalistic age bequeathed to us. It is Pynchon's art to transform history into a chaos of stories, and thus to dissolve the belief in a narratable social or cosmic order by means of hypertrophic narration. The novel furnishes the experience of a totality which can no longer be experienced as an articulated whole. Paradoxically, this occurs through an unexpected revival of epic naivite-on a highly sentimental level. Like the two preceding parts of the trilogy, Updike's novel Rabbit is Rich recounts by contrast the everyday life of a thoroughly everyday hero who is at home in the precisely structured little world of the imaginary city of Brewer (in Pennsylvania, USA). It is Updike's art to transform the fleetingness of our everyday life into the story of a person, which dissolves the belief in a simple life of simple people through the recounting of their highly incompatible passions and beliefs. The Rabbit-trilogy provides the experience of dissonant forces which determine what appears to be the biographical unity of an unspectacular person even in his most conventional behaviour. Paradoxically, the modernity of what is narrated gives this rather traditionally written prose a sentimental consciousness that is hardly inferior to the most formally extravagant prose. The hidden complementarity of the two opposing methods of writing becomes recognizable as soon as they are both experienced and evaluated as successful. The relationship they achieve does not minimize the contrast between them in any way; through their being integrated into the family of accomplished works, however, they are both appreciated as revealing an important way of seeing our present time. In shedding light on our present the two systematically opposed artworks are nevertheless allies. It is evident, however, that precisely the difference between Pynchon and Updike is essential to the experience of our present. Our world is neither Updike's nor Pynchon's; through the contrast of both ways of writing it appears as a world in which the choice between these two alternatives should not be made. For the experience of the diffusion of well-structured totalities is just as fundamental as the experience of personal identity which preserves itself as a vector of irreconcilable impulses. Via the contrast of the aesthetically valid, the validity of contrast in experience itself is validated. If the definition of art borrowed from various aestheticians is tenable, then the coexistence of the successful works signifies exactly this: the irreversible coexistence of perspectives on the world, which by those who judge them as excellent is held to be essential for the authentic experience of the present. Unlike Pynchon, who presumably does not bother about someone like Updike, the painter Barnett Newman expressly intended his picture-series "Who's afraid of red, yellow and blue?" to be polemically directed against idealizing abstraction, especially against Mondrian. But here once again it should be apparent that the sublime force of these "off-balance" pictures cannot invalidate the delicate balance of the best of Mondrian's pictures; indeed for aesthetic perception the destiny of Newman's series appears bound

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to the lasting energy of Mondrian's pictures, which, through the existence of their incommensurable offspring, achieve an even greater force. This again does not mean that the struggle between an aesthetic of the sublime and an aesthetic of the beautiful, which Newman and Mondrian carry on by aesthetic means, ends in a draw. We, perceiving the aesthetic force of both Mondrian and Newman, decide not to decide this controversy-for reasons given to us by the best works of these painters. Just as Mondrian is no longer the same after we have come to know Newman's counterpictures, so too is a Titian no longer the same since we have had experience with Mondrian and Newman; in any case not with pictures like the ascension of Maria, a picture which shows the beauty of the sublime, a synthesis that in our century is split apart into the contrast between Mondrian and Newman. To make an evidently risky claim-out of Titian's picture, Mondrian's message speaks with Newman's force: the certainty of redemption is instantiated with sublime power. Herein lies part of Titian's greatness for the contemporary viewer, a greatness which again cannot be understood as the integration of what comes to be disunified later. For although we need not believe in the religious presuppositions of the picture to believe in the picture, the experience of the hostility of the religious domestication of the sublime belongs to the actual perception of this picture. As long as the beauty of the Titian painting is understood as coexistent with the excellence of Mondrian and Newman, none of these pictures can absorb the aesthetic significance of the other, however much one may have taken up from the other or may have answered to it. The excellent work does not integrate the expressive capacity of works that stand beside it, for these are excellent in their own way. It enters into a tension-filled constellation together with these, a constellation that is to be understood as one of perspectives bound to experience which the artworld allows us to live through as the world-constituting perspectivality of our present. These few observations on aesthetic coexistence permit us to give a preliminary positive answer to the question of the possibility of progress. Aesthetic progress consists in bringing to life aesthetic difference. This difference is twofold. It involves first the difference between aesthetic experience on the one hand, and theoretical and practical knowledge on the other, and second-and equally important-the difference between the excellent objects of aesthetic experience. The difference between aesthetic rationality and theoretical and practical rationality, is most clearly explained again through the formula of ways of seeing. Aesthetic validity-the validity (or truth) of the excellent and the beautiful-implies the appropriateness of world-constituting ways of seeing which the successful work reveals and the failed work obscures. The disclosure of valid ways of seeing is the privilege of aesthetic cognition; it is neither translatable into the theoretical knowledge of propositions nor into the practical knowledge of the appropriateness of courses of action, nor replaceable through them. As is well-known, the differentiation of these spheres of value is the progress with which modernity began a long time ago; this progress is a progress of freedom which had and has particular risks, without

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the relapse into the fiasco of transcendental security becoming more tempting. The external differentiation of theoretical, practical and aesthetic validity implies a simultaneous internal differentiation not only in the aesthetic realm. As in the realms of theoretical and practical rationality, the untenability of the ideal of a linear progression toward the better and finally toward an ultimate good, understood as the final goal of this development, is apparent in the aesthetic realm as well. As becomes clear from the discussion of the problem of aesthetic coexistence, aesthetic practice draws its essential energy precisely from the differences between excellent works. 8 It is one of the basic experiences of modernity that the right view of the world does not-and cannot-present itself to its inhabitants. And what initiated the post-classical transformation of classical modernity some time ago was not in the least the discovery that such an overall view neither does nor even should exist. 9

III Regress in Art It follows from the preceding considerations that the received view of aesthetic progression rests upon speculative assumptions about history which in the self-critical age of modernity are no longer tenable. For the traditional concept of progress the ideal of the total work is a regulative principle blindly adhered to. The total work is that work in which the right view of the world is represented in such a way that the totality of appropriate forms of life is aesthetically manifested by it. This ideal has many variants. One of these variants is the conception of distinct developmental sequences at the end of which the perfect work of a certain kind succeeds, because it gives perfect expression to the forms of life of its time. Another variant of this conception of progress is the case where the success of the perfect work falls together with the "Aufhebung" of art in a world which would no longer know artworks, because here the transparency of unalienated forms of life would have come to be realized in the splendid reality of human existence. The reservation about progress prevalent today, I believe, is perfectly right against the utopian as well as the relativistic variant of the conception according to which progress is a progress of perfection. The defeat of this belief in progress is indeed decisively progress-and not only in art. Nevertheless, this is not the final word on progress. Not all progress is a progress toward something, which is present to the actors as the goal of their behaviour. Equally important are those forms of progress which take place within a context, e.g. the broadening of a capacity, which emerges in the improvising employment of this capacity. The progress of art is mainly of this kind. This progress must be understood as a change of aesthetic behaviour, which is directed productively and/or receptively to the developing and developed works of art. 10 This progress follows a logic of enrichment, not of execution. The "telos" of this aesthetic progress is not the unification or perfection of art in one work or in the social work of liberation. Its movement is that of a pluralization of media and of the intensification of the possibilities of representing world-constituting experiences. Aesthetic

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progress is progress in the cognition of the worldliness of the world common to the contemporaries of a culture and society. The enriching of aesthetic perception has to do essentially with the liberating effect of this cognition. Together with the perception of their excellence, the manifold of accomplished works opens up a field of experience defined by the possibility of a confrontation with experiences constitutive of the lifeworld. Aesthetic experience can figure the complex meaning-or in Hegelian words, familiar to Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorn~an figure the "substance of experience" of lifeworld situations outside actual involvement with these situations. As distinct from other forms of lifeworld experience this one is essentially undergone voluntarily; in aesthetic experience we do not have to experience in order to overcome disorientation-we are inticed to disorientating experiences in order to become aware of meaningconstellations underlying our existential orientations and disorientations. The liberating quality of aesthetic perception is not only grounded in a liberation for experience, but is at the same time a liberation from experiences which in the aesthetic realm are experienced as narrowing and changeable. 11 Aesthetic progress, one can then say, consists in the achievement and broadening of this field of experience and cognition. This progress is in principle incomplete, for it must be won time and time again for every historical present. This progressive retrieval always has defensive requirements as well: namely the defense of aesthetic validity against domination by theoretical and practical claims (claims which nevertheless play a legitimate role in the language-game of aesthetic criticism). Therefore the condition of aesthetic progress today is not only the affirmation of the aesthetic coexistence of successful artworks, but to the same extent the liberating coexistence of various dimensions of truth. To maintain the world in a liberating state of contrasting realities is the progressive mission not in the least of aesthetic practice. The idea of a progress of "enrichment" becomes clearer when we look at the forms of regress by avoiding which progress is accomplished. It would be a separate theme to show how in a theory of emancipation, which is oriented no longer by linear models of execution and appropriation, the concept of regression becomes the central notion of progression. Such at least is the case in the aesthetic sphere. With the defeat of perfectionistic theories of progress, the concept of progress turns out to be secondary in relation to that of regress. Of course it would be misleading to take immediately every misunderstanding, every false judgment, every bad artwork as a step backwards in art; insofar as this is actually a matter of regress instead of a harmless failure, we have to do here at best with backward steps in art and its regions. Only that development can be identified as regress of art, whose occurrence decisively threatens the previously sketched function of art. In conclusion, I would like to identify four serious forms of regress by which art (together with aesthetic practice) is permanently threatened in this century-in order to make the sense of defending aesthetic progress also more concrete. First, aesthetic practice becomes regressive when historical interest begins to dominate aesthetic interest; when the works of art are conceived merely as

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documents rather than as media of actual experience. Beyond the fact that an artwork is a cultural product-a circumstance which is also of interest for an unreduced aesthetic experience-the historicist fallacy is the result of forgetting what artworks are made for and what their calling is; it confuses the genesis of art with its validity. Closely related to this deformity is the other fallacy, which concerned us in the previous argument. It might be called the futuristic fallacy, because it takes every single artwork principally as a step toward a future art (no matter whether this future lies before or behind us). This fallacy confuses the validity of art with its genesis-a blindness which is exactly complementary to that of the historicist. A third danger to art lies in a way of perceiving that reduces the individual artwork to merely insular significance, and by this means robs it of its uniqueness of expression among other forms of aesthetic articulation. This singularistic blindness abandons the uniqueness of the great artworks in favor of their uniform singularity. Afourth step backward, finally-and maybe the most dangerous one-is to be seen in the widespread tendency to treat works of art not primarily as media of expression, but above all as souvenirs-that remind everyone of his own most personal concerns. This solipsistic delusion no longer perceives the significant objectivity of the works of art. I cannot elaborate here the disastrous consequences of these regressions. Rather I would like to add that these four approaches are to be identified as corrupted forms of aesthetic perception only when they supplant aesthetic perception or begin to dominate it. As long as they are limited to an accompanying role in aesthetic perception they constitute quite unsuspect and partly even necessary approaches to art. As forms of aesthetic misbehaviour, however, these approaches thus characterized have one thing in common: that in aesthetic perception-in the face of the work of art-they refuse aesthetic perception. In the four forms of aesthetic regress a thoroughly conservative aspect of aesthetic progress becomes apparent-its tendency to conserve (and extend!) the described capacity for aesthetic perception. In order to succeed here, the perception as well as the production of art must not come to an end. To be sure, art in modernity is not necessarily compelled to a permanent one-dimensional innovation of its techniques alone-it is compelled to a permanent renewal of art. To this end new works will still be needed-as well as an appreciation of the continuing novelty of the new and of the old in light of ever changing experiences.
NOTES
1. E. H. Gombrich, The Ideas ofProgress and their Impact on Art, ed. by The Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture (New York, 1971); my quotation is retranslated from the German edition, E.H.G., Kunst und Fortschritt (Koln: Du Mont, 1978), pp. 15 ff. Ibid., p. 122. Ibid., p. 114. Enlightening remarks on the concept of aesthetic sequence are to be found in H. Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte? (Munchen: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1983). Cf. A. C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).

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An extended reconstruction is given in my book Die Kunst der Entzweiung. Zum Begriff der aesthetischen Rationalitiit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985). Thus, it seems to me, that in aesthetics we have to avoid the tendency to separate an aesthetic of reception from an aesthetic of production. This contention as well as the following argumentation are based on the assumption that art-critical interpretations and evaluations can in principle be justified without depending on strict criteria, cf. Die Kunst der Entzweiung, Ch. Ill. I am here passing over the additional aspect of aesthetic difference, which is founded on the distinction between the aesthetic quality of art and that of nature. The necessity of (at least) two concepts of modernity is illustrated in my review of Habermas's latest book: "Eine zweite Moderne? Zu ]urgen Habermas: Der philosophische Diskurs der Modeme," in: Merkur, 40 (1986), pp. 245-251. Moreover, this progress is not bound to the aesthetic perception of artworks, as I assume for the sake of simplicity in this paper. On the double meaning of aesthetic freedom cf. H. R. ]auss, Asthetische Erfahrung und literarische Hermeneutik I (Munchen: Fink, 1977), pp. 62 ff.