Calling Out to the Old Radical Herbert Marcuse
The definition of aesthetics drafted for 2014 ROOTS Week seems to have stood up usefully: “aesthetics are means by which art and art-making respond to and stimulate sensory and emotional experience, and how such sensory and emotional experiences contribute to meaning. Understood this way, we believe the term can be applied affirmatively and effectively to community-based arts practice for social justice.”
This statement was crafted as a positive strategy to counter the common assumption that aesthetics is way of thinking devoted to the establishment of standards of excellence or criteria of evaluation, all too often predicated on the dominant culture. The strategy seemed to work at ROOTS, where the conversation has advanced past defensive posturing to a pretty vital engagement with learning how to talk about the actual sensory and emotional experience of conceiving, making, and receiving art, especially in the context of ROOTS’s artistic commitment to working for social, economic, and environmental justice.
The statement itself has come out of a multi-year inquiry into Herbert Marcuse’s final work, The Aesthetic Dimension, (1978, 2003) through a class I teach in the MFA program at Virginia Tech. Marcuse wrote his book as a radical, progressive challenge to Marxist aesthetics, which sometimes seems to date the work and make for slow reading. But it is well worth the effort, for he locates art in the realm of human experience through individual sensory perception and emotional life. His now highly acclaimed student Carol Becker writes a helpful review and assessment of his thinking in her essay “Herbert Marcuse and the Subversive Potential of Art,” a chapter in her book The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility. (1994)
The idea that every authentic work of art offers public access to a new and perhaps even unique way of seeing, feeling, knowing the world invites the possibility (Marcuse calls it “the chance”) of personal transformation, at the experiential level – the only level where real change is possible. In this sense, art offers the opportunity to practice change, to flex the imagination beyond personal habit and life experience. No act can be more subversive, more revolutionary than for citizens to exercise, to expand and, ultimately, to come to own their own imaginations, outside the dictates of social constructs of any kind. This chance for change has within it the strength of the transformation required of the art maker to give form to her/his own experience. To me this is a powerful, even sacred relationship between the maker and the receiver, the storyteller and the story listener. It also locates the chance for change within the individual, the personal, the only starting place for social change, as well as personal.
This matter of giving form to experience and thereby becoming content lies at the crux of art making. It is also where critical thinking is most called on to balance, to provide the response to the call, to complete the circle of art, for art is inevitably connected to community, those who see, hear, receive the art. This inevitability is crucial to acknowledge, in that art is only actualized in the completing of the circle. (I say this in reference to the notion that some art is becoming more “socially engaged.” I believe all art is socially engaged. Art cannot occur outside of the social.) This may be more apparent in the ephemeral nature of performance but it is just as true when considering more permanent objects of art, whether literary or material.
In all cases, art calls for response and is thereby connected to community. Of course, the response could be the complacent “ahhhh” of recognition of a status quo, as much as it could be the thrilled “ohhhhh” of surprise and discovery. The challenge to evaluate, to assess, I would like to suggest, lies in finding expressive, responsive language that is predicated on the art itself, on the sensory and emotional form and content of the art, and on the sensory and emotional experience of the receiver, and on the cultural, social, political (community, things of the polis) context of the exchange between the two. Categories, historic movements, aesthetic frames are helpful as they may assist in comprehending the immediate experience. They can easily be misused to apply standards or criteria that are alien to the experience. Response in the oral tradition of call and response is as organically, passionately, empathically constructed as the call itself. So it must be with the expression of response to art.