The Absolute and the Aesthetic
Understood as historical items (documents, traditions, archaeological sites, artworks) which are relatively isolated representatives of the historical era from which they come, relics are of great significance as the principal means we have of developing a historical consciousness, especially since the ubiquity of cultural and documentary production is a recent phenomenon and we rely solely on relics to learn about many historical eras. Knowledge of the past is frequently called upon for all sorts of purposes, most fundamentally to obtain personal and communal identity. Identifying with a community, whether we are born into it or enter it from outside, requires a sense of continuity between that community’s history and its present, and being able to place oneself in a meaningful relation to that history. This is true for any community, but especially for the nation, and it is surely for this reason that history forms an integral part of school curricula all around the world. However, our concrete knowledge of the past is necessarily insufficient or exclusionary, because it must be derived from relics; it is therefore in adequate to meet the demands placed on it. In order to fulfill the purposes which call for a greater knowledge of the past than we can have, we reintegrate and construct a mental edifice by filling in the gaps of our imperfect and incomplete knowledge. In the following essay I argue that there are two principal means through which we learn about history and erect this edifice: the absolute, and the aesthetic, the former relying on actual or purported facts, whereas the latter derives from an engagement with artistic and literary relics. The point I want to emphasize is that both are necessarily imperfect, and relying on one to the exclusion of the other is deleterious, though commonly practiced.
The first means of learning about history is what we normally tend to associate with the classroom and involves factual information: kings, dates, wars, movements, their significance for society and the economy, etc. However, although this sort of learning is based on facts, it cannot be characterized as a mere transmission of data. What is transmitted must be selectively arranged and interpreted before we can receive it. Firstly, the amount of data to which we would have to have access in order to gain meaningful insights into a historical event or period is vast, and relying on the judgment of authorities (historians, educators) is a practical necessity to isolate certain information as relevant. More importantly, information, even after it is sieved in this way, requires interpretation before we can assimilate it. This is clearly seen if we consider a first grade student who has only just begun to learn about history: not only names and dates, but events have to be given in a package with their significance already divined, the link between cause and effect being more an assertion that they accept than something which they can follow by himself. These pre-interpreted significances form reference points for him, and only by taking these points as basis does he subsequently and gradually come to exercise his own reason.
If, as we get older, we develop a greater ability to engage with information first-hand and without intellectual intermediaries – if, in other words, we appear to become more ‘enlightened’ and capable of using our reason - it is as much because we acquire more reference points through our education, as because our cognitive capacities have developed or because education has made us freer to use our reason. These reference points may engender in us the impression of intellectual autonomy, but are in fact masses of pre-interpreted information. In our reasoning, we rely on these points as basis as much as we rely on our abstract faculty of reasoning, divorced from external influences; the latter cannot come into play before the former has reached a certain stage of robustness. It is therefore difficult to turn our reasoning back on itself to analyze these reference points, which we may call prejudices, because the very exercise of reason relies on them. The most we can do is to replace those reference points with others, since pure reason - i.e. reason that is abstract and divorced from these prejudices - has limited capacity, and when taken to its logical end, criticizes everything and tears down all edifices, yet gives us nothing to replace them with. In this sense, the crisis of the Enlightenment remains unresolved, and the most we can do is to see whether our prejudices, attained in the manner outlined above, are consistent.
There is a second method of learning about the past that allows us far greater freedom, in the sense that it leaves the business of interpreting what we encounter to us, to be conducted according to our own already-qualified faculties. It is through aesthetic engagement with relics of an artistic or literary kind that we are, at least partially, able to overcome this dependence. The aesthetic sense promises a more independent and individual engagement with the past because it does not need as much instruction and training before it can engage with the relics which are its objects, that is artistic and literary relics. In addition to being told about the events of the Regency period or their significance, we can reach a different yet equally important kind of understanding that involves our own individuality more closely by reading the poems of Keats, visiting the buildings built by John Nash, viewing the paintings of Adam Buck, etc. Without a doubt, these works will only be representative of the experiences of a certain small section of the society of the time, the more so the farther back we go. That is one reason why the preservation and dissemination of popular, folk and minority art is an important complement to ‘high’ or establishment culture, and reminds us not to neglect any one component of culture.
What is attained through aesthetic engagement with artistic relics? At a very basic level, one needs to know something about the origin of a work of art before that work can have historical meaning for them, which is the point of discussion here. Moreover, even though a given work of art arouses feelings in us from the first moment we appraise it, these feelings remain strictly personal, and may even be amorphous, until they are given factual context to which they can attach themselves. Such context is furnished by historical education, and therefore even here we are not totally emancipated from our intellectual heteronomy insofar as factual historical education is pre-interpreted. However, even if this factual education directs us toward a certain path, we are still free to move along that path as we will, and this freedom to explore history on our own terms results in an understanding of the past that is closer to us. By claiming that the aesthetic sense needs relatively less training than reasoning to be utilized, I am not denying that we may develop or ‘refine’ our tastes over time; in fact, the way this process of refinement takes place indicates the other dimension of engaging with artistic relics. As we come into contact with more works of art and literature from our communal past, our aesthetic sense is shaped accordingly, our sensibilities are magnified or atrophied according to the elements that are emphasized in the artistic and cultural tradition. Thus, our sensibility is cultivated in concord with artistic tradition, which exists precisely because this process has been repeated in the past and an intergenerational dialogue exists between artists and authors from different periods. Refinement consists in a more intimate understanding and internalization of this tradition. Although the individual engages freely with the artistic and literary relics, in the end, the totality of this exposure ends by creating a common way of looking at things: what might be called a commonwealth of taste.
But if our aesthetic sense, which is supposed to be liberating, is gradually shaped by the extent to which we are exposed to artworks of a certain tradition, something over which we have no control, isn’t that also disempowering for the individual? Is it so very different from factual history that has been interpreted for us? While it is true that we cannot have full control over what we are exposed to, and even that we have very little control until a certain age, our reception to the artistic objects which we are exposed to is largely unique and free from outside influences. Agreement and commonality are not arrived at through the imposition of pre-conceived judgment; rather, they come about through exposure to works of art which exist in a common tradition and which exert an influence on our minds and senses. We are operating under the assumption that all human beings share a similar cognitive makeup in their reception of sense data, seeing that there is no scientific ground to posit that different ethnicities or groups of people are wired differently from birth. It seems clear that social factors must account for any differences, and exposure to different artworks and objects of aesthetic quality - i.e. natural as well as man-made objects - is one such factor, yet even if we control for differences in exposure, we would see differences in personal taste emerging. Each individual is unique in an infinite number of minute ways in their response to the set of stimuli presented to them, as well as, but apart from the exact makeup of stimuli with which they are presented, which remains within the broad contours of what I have here labelled ‘tradition’. The result will be a commonality of taste and judgment where each individual nonetheless diverges slightly, and that divergence will reflect the unique character of each individual. It is important to emphasize the role of culture for engendering and defining the boundaries of such universality; it is to be found within a cultural area which is defined by a common education and exposure to the same relics.
The value of an artistic engagement with history is therefore the possibility it offers for the imbrication of individual and social sensibilities through the creation of a personal, yet common sensibility of the past. Our judgment is as much sensual as it is rational. In addition to joining the social and the individual in a harmonious unity, the aesthetic intuition, which is engendered in us autonomously rather than through external imposition, is closer to us, more a part of our own being, and will therefore engender a sense of identity that resists erosion and soft-power imperialism. This is not to say that we should remain parochial and reject things that fall outside of our own national traditions. I want to point out that the problem addressed by the aesthetic does not solely concern nations or other groups that are prone to seeing their members’ sense of identification with them erode in the absence of artistic relics, or the necessary emphasis thereon. What is even more worrying, is that when the concept of group identity is emptied of its deeply-felt personal and personally-created meanings, without the demand of the group for allegiance being simultaneously rescinded, it will be filled by heteronomous assertions that resort to exclusivist, even racist rhetoric to appeal to the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population in the absence of authentic cultural relics that can do the same in a much more preferable manner. Therefore, lack of engagement with relics of artistic and literary value is more likely to lead to parochialism and jingoism than it is to cosmopolitanism. In countries where such engagement has been curtailed for various reasons, not only do we see a lot of drift and uprooting in the face of cultural commodification, but also the sporadic rise of radical politics laying claim to superiority based on identity, the vehemence of which is perhaps explained by an underlying insecurity as to the definition of that identity.