Well Then, Call Me an Aesthete Too

Dan Green has weighed in on the political art argument continued over at Scribbling Woman. I’d like to clarify just what being an aesthete (since the conversation has now shifted towards these nutty dichotomies) really means. An aesthete, whether an artist, a scholar or a dilletante, recognizes certain sensibilities that speak to her. It could be plotting or prose in literature, symbolism or contours in art, mise-en-scene or editing in film, or tempo and timbre in music. Ultimately it’s about trying to understand the immediate visceral impulse, trying to dissect response through theory, or using specific examples to explain why a piece of art works. But it doesn’t preclude political awareness, nor does it suggest that consciousness cannot operate outside the boundaries of artistic understanding.

The purported “disdain” has more to do with being subjected to a plodding novel that isn’t working, that isn’t stirring the juices, and that, frankly, falls flat on its ass — all because the author needs to convey some didactic point or otherwise interfere with the extant mechanisms that allow art to flourish. The immediate example that was tossed around the blogosphere last month was Tim Robbins’ play Embedded, the excerpt of which speaks for itself. Robbins, as I noted, has made some compelling films. But when he adopts a heavy-handed poise with such dialogue as “The message of the new Hitler’s evil has been unrelenting and omnipresent,” it does nothing but preach to the converted. Where’s the nuance in that? It limits the spectrum of communication, and any inveterate aesthete can see that the dialogue’s lack of nuance destroys the intent. Now if Robbins had considered the text in relation to subtext, as he did when turning the 1960s lefty folk singer into an arch conservative in Bob Roberts, it might have worked. If he had predicated his work with additional meaning, such as irony or metaphor (Dr. Strangelove‘s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.” or my previously cited Cat’s Eye example come to mind), then not only would his play be more aesthetically sound, but it could operate as a conduit that allowed each individual to ascertain their own private meaning.

I would suggest that the reader/audience member is guided in some part by her subconsciousness and experience, and that politics is one of many things that influence their response. But it is not entirely contingent upon it. For example, since I grew up poor, I developed a bias against the rich, particularly the avaricious and complacent rich. This in turn shaped my politics and has in turn prevented me from sympathizing with art that explores privilege. Lost in Translation was a good film, but its portrayal of rich WASPs kvetching about their La Dolce Vita existences simply did not speak to me. I’m reading Julia Glass’ Three Junes right now and, while I admire the plotting and the structure, the characters vacationing in Greece and “suffering” in Scotland leave me lukewarm. I’ve tried to respond to this by deliberately reading books or experiencing art outside my paradigm.

To go back to Dan, he suggests that the aesthetic stance is a pragmatic one. And speaking for myself, I would agree, if only because my desire to understand art has left me groping beyond emotional response and into cause-effect, specific examples, sometimes placing a work within the purview of current theory. It is the natural progression for anyone to take. And if moving beyond a febrile formalist trying to find every known political quality within a piece of work, a pursuit that strikes me as a dull, tedious and incomplete way of understanding, well then you can throw my ass into the aesthete ghetto too.


  1. I felt the same way when I finally got around to reading “About Schmidt” – well written, well crafted and I simply could not give a shit. Hard to get worked up about the woes of fabulously rich, emotionally closed Upper East Side WASPs. And bravo on Lost In Translation – thought I was the only person in the western world (or at least on the west coast) who was unimpressed.

    Yeah, yeah, I know – back to bed and rest. Going. Thanks for the note.

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