One of the remarkable—yet often overlooked—features of aesthetic experience is its capacity to enact both promises and threats. Neither enlisting itself unequivocally in social utopias, nor allowing itself to be jettisoned in favor of a morally, politically, or epistemically more salutary alternative, the aesthetic domain is a field of pleasure and pain, of ignorance and knowledge, of brutality and life-sustaining agency. Its alliance with invidious forces and histories notwithstanding, the aesthetic enables us to confront tensions in the realms of epistemology,
Our understandings of aesthetic periods along national and generic lines are often highly contingent. Anglophones may know a good deal about seventeenth-century Dutch painting, but almost nothing about eighteenth-century Dutch poetry. Italian opera looms large in the received history of nineteenth-century
As postmodernism recedes into the distance let’s recall two brash signs of its cultural hegemony. First, in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker, a shot of a table in an espresso bar reveals a lightly worn copy of The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Published in 1983 and edited by Hal Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic featured essays by figures who will come to stand as some of postmodernism’s most central, including Habermas, Krauss, Jameson, Baudrillard, and Said. Second, from 1999, in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, in which we spy Neo with a book that’s been hollowed out to hide hard cash and electronic files.
“Aesthetic Turns” makes connections between modernist visual art (including film, dance, theater, etc.) and contemporary theoretical and political concerns.