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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 587-592

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Book Review

Rethinking the Aesthetic in the Century of Taste

David Porter

Dabney Townsend, ed. Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics (Amityville, NY: Baywood, 1999). Pp. viii + 499. $60.00 cloth.

George Dickie. The Century of Taste: The Philosophical Odyssey of Taste in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Pp. xii + 156. $45.00 cloth.

Robert W. Jones. Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. xii + 268. $64.95 cloth.

Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, eds. Refiguring Revolutions: Aesthetics and Politics from the English Revolution to the Romantic Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Pp. x + 376. $50.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

The "return of the aesthetic" so often heralded in recent years as a corrective to the excesses of politically oriented criticism might be expected, at the very least, to reinvigorate stagnant debates over the meaning and implications of a long-contested term. Originally coined in the mid-eighteenth century to refer to the philosophy of taste, aesthetics took on a new valence in Kant's third critique as a discipline concerned more broadly with the cognitive conditions of sensuous perception. In the nineteenth century, Kant's emphasis on the contemplation of form as the defining feature of aesthetic experience was challenged, in turn, by the Hegelian focus on the content of art as the characteristic expression of an historically situated world view. The twentieth century's successive embrace and repudiation of the modernist and formalist credos, its more recent literary canon wars, and the sharp disagreements that are still occasioned by such terms as "literary merit" and "artistic value" can all be seen, then, as the continuation of a struggle dating back to the origins of the discipline over the very soul of aesthetic meaning and pleasure.

One current formulation of this conflict in academic circles pits the "aesthetic" (understood as an appreciation of beauty largely for its own sake) against a "cultural studies" discourse that has supposedly abandoned beauty in its pursuit of social and historical contexts and ideological undercurrents. Putting aside for a moment its two-fold reductionism, such an opposition seems strategically misguided in that it obscures the potentially intriguing line of inquiry suggested by the pairing of these two terms. The best-known body of work under the heading of aesthetics tends to fall into one of three broad categories. One can readily find historical surveys of the evolution of aesthetic concepts, philosophical investigations of particular theories of art and aesthetic experience, and marxian analyses of the ideological construction of the aesthetic subject. What one finds far less often are historical studies that contextualize beauty as a significant category of ordinary lived experience. To maintain that particular forms of aesthetic pleasure are historically contingent or politically problematic suggests, correctly, that they are neither natural nor universal, but this need not preclude claims to their being immensely potent or "real." Like the pleasures of sex, one might reasonably presume, the appreciation of beauty in persons and things stubbornly persists in one form or another whatever reconfigurations of human subjectivity or social arrangements are thrown in its path. Scholars' studied preoccupation, however, with the theoretical and often universalizing [End Page 587] analysis of this appreciation has tended to foreclose two complementary lines of historical inquiry. The first concerns how those pleasures we think of as aesthetic have been variously configured in particular cultural contexts: how might one begin to differentiate disparate, contextually contingent experiences of the beautiful? The second concerns the scope of the category of the aesthetic itself. Within eighteenth-century studies, in particular, we fall perhaps too easily into the trap of internalizing that period's idiosyncratic conceptions of legitimate aesthetic pleasure, with the result that we may tend to overlook those alternative sites of pleasurable response most often dismissed at the time on the grounds of degenerate taste. If the designations of high- and low-brow pleasures are meaningful, as Bourdieu suggests, only in relation to one another, there may...


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