chapter  7
17 Pages

Guided freedom: aesthetics, tutelage and the interpretation of art

In one of his many discussions of the concept, Theodor Adorno defined aesthetics as a practice of interpretation and commentary that aims to produce a critical and self-reflexive form of individuality that ‘stands free of any guardian’ (Adorno 1963: 281). It is a formulation that aptly captures how the understanding of aesthetics

as a practice of freedom has been developed in the slipstream of Kant’s account of the beautiful as ‘what is presented without concepts as the object of a universal liking’ (Kant 1987: 53). Freed from the constraint of any determinate concept, aesthetic judgement was thereby also putatively freed from the sway of moral or political authorities as the interpreters of such concepts. By thus disentangling aesthetic from conceptual judgement, Kant produced the aesthetic as a zone of activity – a practice of the self – that could be conducted independently of any tutelage to such external authorities, a space of freedom. Foucault addressed these aspects of Kant’s legacy – discussed in more detail in the previous chapter – on a number of occasions, notably in his commentary on Kant’s 1784 ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (Foucault 2007a) and in his essay on the aesthetics of existence (Foucault 1989). He returned to the same concerns in 1982-3 in his course of lectures on The Government of Self and Others where, confessing that Kant’s essay on Enlightenment had become ‘something of a blazon, a fetish for me’ (Foucault 2010: 7), he offers a probing discussion of its evasions and contradictions. These centre on Kant’s conception of Enlightenment as ‘man’s way out from his self-incurred tutelage’ to acquire the capacity ‘to make use [of his understanding; MF] without direction from another’ (Kant, cited in Foucault 2010: 26). There are two aspects of Foucault’s discussion I want to highlight here. The

first concerns Kant’s negative assessment of men’s capacity to escape from their tutelage through their own action and volition, and, equally, the inability of exemplary individuals to lead or guide others to the autonomy that they had attained without, thereby, exercising an authority over them that would, in the very process of ‘freeing’ them, bind them into a new form of tutelage. The second concerns the conclusion Kant draws from this: that Enlightenment consists in a redistribution of the relations between the government of self and others affected by a new arrangement of the relations between private

and public reasoning. This depended, Foucault notes, on ‘an ingenious little trick’ through which Kant reverses the normal meanings of these words. Private reasoning, as Foucault summarises it, relates to ‘our public activity as functionaries, when we are components of a society or government whose principles and objectives are those of the collective good’ (35). In such cases we are ‘he [Kant] says, just “parts of a machine” … placed in a given spot, [with] a precise role to play, with other parts of the machine having to play different roles’ (35). Public reasoning, by contrast, relates to ‘the use we make of our understanding and our faculties inasmuch as we place ourselves in a universal element in which we can figure as a universal subject’ (36). We constitute ourselves as such subjects, Foucault continues, ‘when as rational beings we address all other rational beings’ (36). Kant’s argument, though, is not for the complete displacement of private reasoning, or of the forms of tutelage it involves, by public reasoning, but a proper apportionment of the relations between the two, such that the latter – in which there is no relationship of tutelage to any authority – orders the spheres in which the former is exercised. However, as Foucault notes, Kant’s essay offers no account of the process

through which this condition is to be arrived at. This is rather the accomplishment of his later (1790) Critique of Judgement. By freeing the judgement of beauty from its subordination to concepts, this opened up a space – individually within the architecture of the person, and collectively within the historical architecture of humanity – in which judgement is freely exercised in a manner that paves the way for the production of a space of universality in which the principles of pubic reasoning might hold sway. The aesthetic thus operates as a technology of the self of a particular kind. Its definition as a form of sensory pleasure that cannot be brought under any concept, Thomas Osborne (1998) argues, opens up the sphere of art – for artists, critics and audiences – as one characterised by a struggle for autonomy from the imposition of any particular code of conduct derived from moral, political or scientific authorities. The work of art, freed from the restrictions of canonical authorities, becomes the zone of a potentially limitless but, at the same time, unachievable freedom. Together with the struggles of artists who seek constantly to renovate this capacity of art in order to reach beyond its historically determinate forms and so open up new avenues of expression into a limitless prospect of free inventiveness, the work of art serves as the template for an endless refashioning of the self that is not brought under the sway of any particular moral code. Such aesthetic conceptions of art have, as we have seen, been deployed in

varied ways in mediating the relations between art and its publics. Osborne’s formulations underline their role producing a historically specific form of engagement with art that there are good reasons for valuing. But only, I want to argue, on certain conditions andwithin certain limits. These have ultimately to do with the unsustainable contention that the aesthetic does indeed, as Adorno contended, produce a relationship in which the self ‘stands free of any guardian’. This fails to recognise the respects in which the space of the aesthetic itself produces distinctive forms of tutelage that induct individuals into certain

practices of ‘guided freedom’ that are subject to the direction of a distinctive kind of authority. It is also an unusually combative form of authority, pitching itself against all other forms of authority, and in particular against those associated with the empirical disciplines and their use in calculating the civic effects of different kinds of art-public encounters. This is the authority that the philosopher claims in setting himself up as an ‘authority of freedom’ whose role is to superintend the capacity of freedom that arises from the subject’s encounter with the aesthetic. This is, though, a form of authority that occludes its own role, and that of the apparatuses in which it is enacted, in organising the coordinates of the aesthetic encounter. I pursue these concerns via a critical assessment of Jacques Rancière’s

account of the relationships between the aesthetic regime of art, freedom and politics. There is, as I have indicated, much to value in Rancière’s approach to the plural social inscriptions of artistic practices within the aesthetic regime of art. There are, though, good reasons for considerable caution regarding the position that he himself takes up within this regime in his advocacy of that particular social inscription of the aesthetic that he characterises as metapolitics. Consideration of these will throw useful light on the general position of contemporary critical aesthetics. This is so for three reasons. First, Rancière’s conception of metapolitics constitutes the most comprehensive and influential attempt to suture back into place the severance of the social and artistic critiques that fuelled the protests of 1968 (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007). Second, Rancière’s conception of the relationship between the aesthetic regime of art and the project of metapolitics provides an unusually clear insight into the operations of the Kantian armature that underpins assessments of the aesthetic as a space for the exercise of a putatively universal judgement over and against civic forms of reasoning. Third, Rancière is unusual in the degree to which his advocacy of the aesthetic is urged by combating the authority of other forms of expertise. This is particularly true of his criticisms of the empirical disciplines, especially sociology, and the place these occupy in his account of the relations between police, as a practice of social ordering, and his conception of politics as an aesthetically motivated practice of freedom. I therefore take this as my starting point.