- The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics
Martha Woodmansee’s book The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics deftly employs a historical, materialist focus to trace the growth of the middle-class in eighteenth-century Germany and to analyze its startling, significant effects on literary aesthetics and the construction of canon, genre, and treatment of gender. The first five chapters are devoted, essentially, to an outline of the development of German aesthetics and the concluding chapter to the English reception of Kant. Woodmansee’s study offers much insight into the period and helps greatly to demonstrate “how a cultural formation that evolved as recently as ‘art’ could have entrenched itself so thoroughly that we imagine it always to have existed” (p. 8).
Woodmansee’s central contention is that populist theories of aesthetics in Germany and England, which in many ways anticipated important elements of materialist or cultural studies emphases, were muted by canonized writers of the eighteenth century like Schiller, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. These writers propagated instead the Kantian notion of art as a realm separate from other human activities and the distinction between high and low art forms. The first three chapters are particularly strong and provide the historical and methodological underpinning for Woodmansee’s rereading of the history of German aesthetics. Chapter One begins with a discussion of the little-studied German writer Karl Philipp Moritz who, she says, “gave the first unequivocal and systematic expression to what I have called our modern conception of the arts” [End Page 176] (p. 11). Woodmansee points particularly to the fact that Moritz champions the notion of art as having an intrinsic value, an idea that five years later, in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, “came to fruition” (p. 12). In Chapter Two, “Genius and Copyright,” Woodmansee lucidly discusses texts such as Lessing’s essay “Leben und leben lassen,” clarifying the tensions regarding “the emergence in the eighteenth century of writers who sought to earn their livelihood from the sale of their writing to the new and rapidly expanding reading public” (p. 36). The survey includes Herder, Wieland, Fichte, and Goethe, and reveals how these writers’ concerns about the often exploitive relationship of authors and publishers, the growth of a middle-class readership, and the integration of literature into the general economy, greatly contributed to the establishment of the author as the main focus of any critical undertaking.
It is Schiller, however, as the archinterpreter and proponent of Kantian aesthetics who is singled out for a particularly thorough rereading. In Chapter Three, Woodmansee writes that Schiller does not represent the kind of political liberality he is purported to in works like On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1793) but instead, “at a historical moment when so much discursive activity was being carried on in the name of the people, sought to write them out of his model of poetry” (p. 75). Schiller’s relationship to the middle-class market and its role in his transcendental aesthetic is graphically traced—from his attempts to penetrate the market and, failing this, his acceptance of, and dependence on patronage, and consequent dismissal of the reading public.
In Chapter Six Woodmansee devotes her attention to English criticism, ending somewhat abruptly her discussion of German aesthetics with neoclassicism. Here she clarifies the great influence of Kant on Addison, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, who perpetuated the notion of art as an ideal realm, as well as the idea that criticism is a task which has “essentially to do with the recovery of a writer’s meaning” (p. 55). Woodmansee scrutinizes Wordsworth’s ostensibly nonmaterialist artistic motives partly by discussing the poet’s indefatigable efforts to get parliament to extend copyright laws in order to reward high art projects which, Wordsworth believed, the public could not properly appreciate until a later date. Woodmansee’s materialist focus seriously challenges the contention, as many would have it, that Wordsworth was a champion of the working people.
Chapter Five, “Engendering Art,” does not adequately develop the...