Graduate Course Description

350:569 - Aesthetics and Social Critique

Course No:  350:569
Index # - 15988
Distribution Requirement:  A4, B
Thursday - 1:10 p.m.  
MU 207

Aesthetics and Social Critique 

Jonah Siegel

“No doubt this is the beauty inextricably shaped by ‘economic and human abomination.’ But the beauty coerced by this abomination is no less important a part of reality than this abomination itself.
Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis (2011)

“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore . . . not even its right to exist.”
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970)

“What has this Beauty to do with the world? What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness—with the facts of the world and the right actions of men?”
W.E.B. Dubois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926)

“Alas! if read rightly, these perfectednesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or helot Greek.”
John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic” (1853)

Is a concern with beauty a distraction from serious political engagements or something that of necessity opens up to a liberatory politics? Is the project of the political or otherwise ethical analysis of culture dependent on getting beyond formal issues to the underlying social structures they cover up—or is it in the nature of those issues to offer unique insight into those deep structures?

Claims about the urgent nature of social critique have from their earliest days involved the question of what to do about art, or about beauty more broadly. And the period that saw those issues addressed with the greatest clarity and creativity was precisely the one in which the conditions that made it urgent were first recognized. The nineteenth-century saw an effloresce of writing devoted to the fine arts, much of it deeply involved in a project of social critique, all of it deeply responsive to contemporary crises and intellectual developments ranging from the French Revolution and other democratizing projects to the emergence of a mass public and modern global capitalism, to the development of philosophical concepts about beauty and history.

This class is designed equip students to enter the rich critical conversation about these topics in an informed way, while also introducing them to a set of authors of extraordinary subtlety and sophistication that are receiving renewed attention in the field.

We will read substantial sections of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters and Stones of Venice, as well as some of his directly political essays. We will spend two weeks on Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. We will also read essays by Oscar Wilde, and by the great socialist Pre-Raphaelite, William Morris. While these authors will be central to our reflections, we will also give serious attention to seminal essays by Friedrich Schiller, William Hazlitt, George Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, and Matthew Arnold. The class will conclude with a series of readings that respond to issues laid out in the earlier period, including works by Vernon Lee, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Virginia Woolf. Theorists we will read will include Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Rancière. Depending on their interests students will also be able to present and develop work in specific areas intersecting with the topics of the course, including the environment, gender, empire, iconoclasm (aka the toppling of statues), and race. Students will submit regular response papers, make two presentations, and write two essays.