Toward the Materiality of Aesthetic Experience

Diacritics 32 (1):19-37 (2002)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Toward the Materiality of Aesthetic ExperiencePeter de Bolla (bio)Over the last twenty years or so it has become a commonplace in discussions of "aesthetics" or of "art" in the most general sense to note that the term "aesthetics" was only very recently invented by Alexander Baumgarten in 1735, where it appears in his Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus [see Menke 40; Dickie; Eagleton]. But the force of this observation in regard to the relative youth of the concept is rarely, if ever, commented upon. As many philosophers and critics have pointed out, Baumgarten's use of the term was not primarily angled at what today might be unproblematically called "artworks"—say, paintings in the European grand master tradition—since his new kind of investigation was to be a "science of sensual recognition," that is, a general inquiry into how we come to know the world from the evidence of our senses. But, as is also frequently remarked, early on in the tradition of speculation now associated with "aesthetics as the study of art" the mutual attraction (to put it in the most anodyne terms) of "art" and "aesthetics" seems to have been extremely strong. As Jonathan Ree remarks, "the real begetter of the philosophical doctrine connecting the arts with the empirical senses—what we might call the aesthetic theory of the arts—was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing" [58]. From this point on (for heuristic purposes it may be identified with the date of publication of Lessing's Laokoon in 1766), artworks, which heretofore had not required a specific branch of inquiry in order for them to make sense or be conceptually grounded as art, are almost universally assumed to require "aesthetic" contemplation or appreciation.1 It is curious, then, that before 1766 such a mode of experiencing artworks had not been felt to be lacking.One might understand this observation both historically and philosophically, and both approaches, it seems to me, are needed. In the case of the first, a number of material effects conspired across mid-eighteenth-century Europe to produce what was in essence the modern art market. These include the legal establishment of copyright, first in England in 1709 but only by the end of the century in France and Germany; the foundation of various institutions whose primary purpose was the promotion and establishment of the fine arts: academies of painting, sculpture, or letters either with or without royal patronage; the public exhibition of paintings (from 1737 in France and 1761 in England); the opening of royal collections to public view (during the second half of the century in London, Paris, Munich, Vienna and Rome); the development of public concerts of secular music (in small scale from the 1670s in England but only becoming fully integrated in fashionable social life by mid-century); the construction of purpose-built concert venues (the Gewandthaus in Leipzig, a former cloth merchant's hall, was remodeled in 1781 in order to accommodate a resident orchestra, in effect becoming the first dedicated concert hall in Europe); the foundation of literary periodicals and review media; the emergence of social spaces and rituals encompassing polite discussion of [End Page 19] literature (coffeehouses, the construction of dedicated library rooms in domestic settings); and the promotion of architecture to a fine art through various societies, competitions, and the public display of architectural drawings in exhibition contexts (the Royal Academy yearly show included both drawings and models). These and other material conditions helped define the fine arts and construct a market in and for them.2 By the 1770s the category of the "fine arts" was well established in Britain, Germany, and France: Charles Batteux's Les beaux arts reduit a un meme principe, first published in France in 1746, was quickly translated into English as The Polite Arts; or, a Dissertation on Poetry,Painting, Musick, Architecture, and Eloquence in 1749 and into German in 1751. By 1771 a four-volume General Theory of the Fine Arts had been published for the German public by J. G. Sulzer.All of this points to the fact that the concept of the "artwork" is subject to both historical and material pressures. Prior to the mid-eighteenth...

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