- The Aesthetic Contract: Statutes of Art and Intellectual Work in Modernity.
As the veteran critic and theorist Henry Sussman confesses in his new book, he has in recent years found himself theorizing by telling stories, and the stories he has been telling “have increasingly simple plot structures” (34). The one told here is a good example; it begins with the Protestant Reformation, when people suddenly became interior, severe, suspicious, individuated, and as Sussman puts it, “constituted by terror, anxiety, indecision, and guilt,” and proceeds to the present, when people are the same but more so (26). Sussman takes the long view in telling this story because he believes that, at least as concerns urbanized westerners, “the histories of art and intellectual production require only a single mega-period from [Dürer] at least through modernism” and even beyond, because “the freedoms, repressions, and defenses that furnish the most meaningful context for creative production and thinking remain fairly constant” (14). So constant, in fact, that Sussman can devote himself to producing not a story, or a history, at all, but rather, as he says, a map of the “broader modernity” (14).
Sussman argues for a “vague and problematic, but nonetheless pervasive parallelism” between forces of subjectivity and “writing” (3). In both domains, a species of premodern and externally imposed power gave way, beginning in the early sixteenth century, to “homemade” and internalized constraints that, appearances notwithstanding, turn out to be more repressive than their antecedents (3). To make a long story short, as he does, Sussman contends that for all these centuries, writing serves as both “the sole significant liberty” and the medium of a counterrevolution that runs against Enlightenment liberalism (3). The figure of the literary artist emerges as the hero of the story, the very center of the map, the figure in whom the essential condition of the age is focused. The artist forges and lives by the “aesthetic contract,” experiencing the freedoms and burdens of having to work out subjective freedom in terms of the constraints that structure all writing. This might seem a strangely weightless account of the past half-millennium, but Sussman’s rhetoric inclines heavily to figures of “the abyss” and “terror.” The artistic genius, he says, “lives in mortal terror of himself. The aesthetic contract of the broader modernity has evolved to a situation in which a constraint once deemed intolerable has emerged as the ideal at the horizon of an incestuous, self-engendered system. Men seek protection in systems they once abhorred” (211).
These scarifying systems do not appear to include war, famine, disease, death, and the material conditions that cause them in today’s world. But to his credit, Sussman acknowledges that “there are indeed what we call historical determinants” even to aesthetic contracts, and these “can be terribly important” (166). And indeed, even after writing is fully considered, “there remains an enormous amount of misery, injustice, and disenfranchisement in the [End Page 153] empirical world,” especially among “the marginalized and disenfranchised” whose voices are muted (39).
If they could speak, the wretched of the earth might ask, “What is an aesthetic contract?” The answer, Sussman suggests, can be found in a number of places, but especially in Kant, where we find an account of art that emphasizes a decisively human, postreligious combination of freedom and restraint that accords the artist great powers but limits their exercise through generic constraints and through the network of implicit understandings that obtain between artist and audience. Sussman’s reading of Kant is not strikingly original, but it is patient and sensitive as it articulates Kant’s genius-centered conception of art and the artist, the complex interaction of freedom and regulation, and the ways in which Kant envisions the disciplining of genius and taste by the necessity of submitting merely individual judgments to the test of universal assent.
The question of the aesthetic contract remains, however. Halfway through the book, Sussman asks the question himself—“So what is the aesthetic contract?”—and responds, somewhat unhelpfully, that it is...