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Richard Shusterman AESTHETIC EDUCATION OR AESTHETIC IDEOLOGY: T. S. ELIOT ON ART'S MORAL CRITIQUE One of the central debates in contemporary cultural theory concerns the role of the aesthetic and the very legitimacy of high art. Traditionally, and certainly since romanticism, we have been accustomed to think of the aesthetic as a valuable realm of freedom, and to regard art as a great liberator of the mind and an educator of the emotions, which in its communicative power enlarges our moral sympathies and concern for human suffering. But today the aesthetic is increasingly attacked not merely as complicitous with oppressive ideology but as constituting one in itself. Similarly, the canon of high art has been stridently challenged as a tool of elitist domination, at once an expression and a reinforcement of society's divisions and of the sociocultural hegemony of certain classes, races, and the male sex. Art's moral value thus appears quite suspect, if not altogether hypocritically bankrupt. Defenders of art may be tempted to dismiss such critique as narrow-minded Marxist nagging or as mere symptomatic fallout from postmodernism's general tendency to challenge our traditional values and practices. But such diagnosis is far from a cure. Nor is it even accurate. The moral critique of art and the aesthetic was voiced before postmodernism was conceived, let alone baptized; and it is shared by nonMarxians. We find it deeply embedded and powerfully expressed in the thought and verse of no less a high modernist and political conservative than T. S. Eliot. Though he is often mistakenly condemned as a formalist aesthete,1 Eliot took pains to insist (against the likes of Shelley, Arnold, and Richards ) that art can neither save the world nor provide personal salvation. 96 Richard Shusterman97 In mordant debunking of the poet's putative status as world legislator, prophet, and savior, Eliot says he would be pleased to secure for the poet "a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian ."2 SimUarly, though the difficulty of his verse suggests elitism, Eliot's poetic ideal was to reach the largest possible audience. This is evident in his praise of Dante and Shakespeare, but even more so in his advocacy of the poetic drama and his own struggle to achieve a wider audience by turning to the theatre: "I believe that the poet naturally prefers to write for as large and miscellaneous an audience as possible ... I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write. . . . The ideal medium for poetry, to my mind [therefore], is the theatre."3 Thus, though deeply committed to the tradition and canon of high art, Eliot was aware and critical ofits pretensions and its effects of social division and isolation. Moreover, while insistingon art's power to educate and edify, he always equally warned against its power to deceive and corrupt. Hence, we find, in After Strange Gods (pp. 59-66), his vicious and admittedly benighted condemnations of Lawrence and Hardy as heretical writers. Eliot, it is important to note, thought that art was most dangerous and distorting when appreciated simply as art, when, for example, literature is read "purely for pleasure." He therefore attacked the idea of "pure literary appreciation" as a dangerous chimerical "abstraction ," and insisted that the criticism of literature go beyond the narrowly literary to include ideological critique, for example, "criticism from a definite ethical and theological point ofview."4 Eliot consequendy advocated a two-stage theory of art appreciation, whose first stage involves a sympathetic, tentative acceptance of the work and its worldview and whose second stage involves a conscious ideological critique of that world.5 There is, then, no one answer to the question of art's value or disvalue. Depending on how successfully both stages are performed , art can be an educating liberator or an enthraUing deceiver. Eliot's theory was always complex, reflecting the complexities and contradictions ofthe phenomena it grasped, which is why his critical corpus is often mistakenly censured as a welter of inconsistency. My recent book, T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism, provides a detailed study of his complex views on art's value as they are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 96-114
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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