(Note: I've been trying to write about Peter Fuller's Aesthetics After Modernism for a couple of weeks now. Generally when I take that long on a post, it means it's going to be very long and not very good. Since I haven't even gotten through half of what I intended to write, I'm putting up what I do have as part one, with, I hope, something better to follow.)
A while back, I mentioned that I had read Peter Fuller's lecture Aesthetics After Modernism, and promised to discuss it in more detail. In particular I wrote that it reminded me of Erazim Kohák's The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, and that I'd try to explain why in a future post. Kohák will still have to wait until part two; here's some of what I found in the lecture.
Fuller wrote in the early 1980's, and he makes clear his ambivalence regarding the art of that moment. The reaction against modernism, when it expressed itself as a return to interest in ornament, craft, traditional forms, narrative, depiction of the human body, and so on, he gladly welcomed; his one reservation, hanging heavy in the balance, was that most of this work wasn't much good. The problem wasn't merely a lack of skill; modern society had lost contact, to a large degree, with what Fuller calls the "aesthetic dimension" of life. The efforts to draw upon it seen in various kinds of neo-traditional art offered results as off-key as music written by the tone deaf.
As he admits, Fuller paints with a broad brush in just a few pages; I will be painting even more broadly. The aesthetic dimension of life, he argues, lies rooted first in the basic perceptual capabilities that we share with a variety of animals, but gains its greater meaning and importance through the deep psychological fulfillment it offers. The combination of evolutionary theory and psychoanalytic thought Fuller draws upon need not detain us here--as so often happens in such efforts, it places decisive importance on breastfeeding--rather, the important point lies in his view of art as a sort of compensation, a realm of freedom and independence not threatened by the limits of our experience or the demands of the outer world. It is the realm of play, of imagination, of symbols created to buffer between our individual being and external reality.
As art belongs to this realm, so does religion, which carries some of the same burdens. Fuller posits aboriginal cultures (partly in acknowledgement of his Australian hosts) with their spiritualism and decorative exuberance as aesthetically healthy societies, where the aesthetic dimension is given free play throughout the group, and not treated as the province of artists as a distinct subsection (medieval society would no doubt fit his Ruskinian ideal as well.) In these societies, the symbolic order is shared and unified, with all playing a role within it and all dignified thereby.
What comes next is no surprise: the history of economic
differentiation and the demystification of the world spins art off away
from religion. Art continues to play its role through creating another
world, one that comes to feature landscape as a reminder, a figuration
of divine presence in nature. Modernism begins the elimination of even
this tenuous connection with the past by denying the mimetic and
revelatory aspects of art. While Fuller doesn't invoke it, Frank
Stella's famous remark about his paintings--"What you see is what you
see"--might serve as describing the endpoint of the trajectory the
critic describes. The painting is just a thing, refusing access to any
other imaginative world outside its optical and physical fact.
Our aesthetic dimension, in Fuller's eyes, has withered; and this is not only tragic but dangerous. As he writes,
I agree with Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist, who once said that the passing of belief in the immanence of God within nature was leading men to see the world as mindless, and hence as unworthy of moral, ethical or aesthetic consideration. Although like Bateson himself, I am an atheist, I think he got it right when he said that when combined this alienation from nature with an advanced technology then 'your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.' Bateson spoke of the need for a new aesthetics, rooted, as he put it, in 'an ecology of mind'--or the recognition that if nature is not the product of mind, then mind itself is in some sense the product of nature--and is therefore immanent with the evolutionary structure, and objectively discernible outside of ourselves. In the 'grammar' of the genetic instructions which inform the leaf how to grow, or the 'beauty' of the patterns on the wings of a butterfly, we see prototypes of man's highest endeavors--even if we do not believe in God.
Heavy. OK, that's wrong; the urge towards an easy smirk and ironic distance, as tempting as it is in light of Fuller's tortured denials of religious feeling, doesn't successfully push away his point. "We must love one another or die"? Well, not quite that, either. I remain impressed by Fuller's seriousness, by his insistance on not so much the importance of art but of aesthetic feeling as a necessary component of life.
Given the Marxist pedigree of some of Fuller's inspirations, it's appropriate to ask: What is to be done? If the vital "aesthetically healthy" society is something on the model of aboriginal culture, after all, we're doomed. He holds that
. . . there are at least grounds for hoping that the future may [give] rise to a two-tiered ecomony in which, as it were, automated industrial production will continue to develop alongside aesthetic production: although, of course, for the potential space to be held open in any significant way, the latter will have to be incorporated into our productive life in a much more radical way than that permitted by leisure, hobbies, or the Fine Art enclave itself.
It's hard to get a grasp on twenty-plus year old visions of the future. But to take this statement seriously, I see either the sort of impulse, found in precincts from John Cage's aesthetics to the quirkier sort of Marxist and psychoanalytic thought, of the union of life and art, or a really bad idea for a possible economic future that looks horrible to democratic, republican eyes. I've no answers to these questions; but I'll be offering some more comments on Fuller, Kohák, and looking, in a future post.