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  • Contexts of the Aesthetic in Walter Benjamin
  • Alexander Gelley

How to talk about the aesthetic today? 1 In many circles the term meets with either suspicion or lack of interest. Discussions of the aesthetic are viewed as a diversion from cultural-political considerations in favor of merely formalist or antiquarian preoccupations. Aesthetics has been displaced on all sides—by cultural and media studies, by sociology of the arts, by psychology and biography of artists, by audience response, by various “anti-aesthetics” (including the postmodern). And the sponsorship which conceptual thought had provided for aesthetics at least up to Hegel is now seen as one of its principal liabilities.

One difficulty, of course, is the diversity of meanings attached to the term. The modern origin of the problematic lies in the mid- and later eighteenth century, the period from Baumgarten to Hegel, a moment when the “aesthetic” was integrated within a comprehensive philosophical system, and in fact, when it assumed a key function therein. In the wake of the English Empiricists and of the French philosophes, the turn to aesthetics in German Romantic and Idealist thought may be seen as an effort to rehabilitate a sense of wonder, of divinity in nature, in a time of skepticism and disbelief. The effort of philosophy in this period was directed to awakening the “moribund language of nature” (Hamann) and giving it a place of honor in the system of philosophy. 2 It is in this sense that aesthetic thought in this period—and preeminently Kant’s Critique of Judgment—came to view art and nature in strict analogy.

The opening pages of Derrida’s “Parergon” very properly put us on [End Page 933] guard regarding the presuppositions that any discourse on the aesthetic entails, presuppositions such as teleology, circularity, belatedness: “The philosophical encloses art in its circle,” Derrida writes, “but its discourse on art is at once, by the same token, caught in a circle.” 3 Yet this is not to say that a circle of this kind can be altogether avoided. The circling of art and philosophy, their mutual resistance and interdependence, has always been integral to the aesthetic. If that point has been neglected in recent discussions, it may only be because it has been displaced by questions regarding the social or the political component in art. We will come back to this point below.

Hegel’s dictum regarding the death of art is so familiar that we tend at once to acknowledge and ignore it. Derrida, alluding to Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” reminds us that “it is from the possibility of its death that art can here be interrogated. It is possible that art is in its death throes, but ‘it will take a good few centuries’ until it dies. . . .” 4 What Derrida terms the “interrogation” of art “from the possibility of its death” designates the radical historicality that Hegel brought to considerations of art works. The Lectures on Aesthetics subject art to an altogether new kind of temporal determination. The truth of art can never coincide with a present manifestation but becomes available only in the mode of retrospection. This conception of the constitutive pastness of art bears directly on the relation of philosophy and art. If, as Hegel maintains, art was once deemed the preeminent avenue to truth it is only by way of philosophy that we can now know this. But, correspondingly, philosophy’s function in disclosing this truth factor in art becomes, in a sense, an enabling condition for philosophy itself. 5

Benjamin’s Intervention

In focusing on contexts of the aesthetic in Benjamin my intention is not only to examine his own conceptual register but also to use it as a diagnostic regarding the present state of affairs. The intervention of Benjamin’s writings into the transformation of theoretical discourses that began in the seventies is still very close to us. But it is often overlooked that Benjamin’s analyses were directed to vastly different conditions than those that we confront today. At the same time, his own sense of history postulated hidden conjunctions between the present and the past, conjunctions that themselves determine what counts, at a given moment...

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