Lebenskünstler

Adorno the Grumpy Puritan – Richard Shusterman on Art and Pleasure

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/30/2012

Come back to Pleasure – Richard Shusterman

Up until modern times, to identify art with the pursuit of pleasure was not at all a way of trivializing art. For pleasure was anything but a trivial matter, not even for philosophers. The ancients (most notably the Cyrenaics and Epicureans) often defined pleasure as the prime good and usually saw it as an essential component of happiness. Even Plato, to make his case for philosophy’s superiority to art and other practices, needed to argue for its superior joys. Looking back on the ancients at the very dawn of modern thought, Montaigne confirms the primacy of pleasure.  “All the opinions in the world agree on this — that pleasure is our goal — though they choose different means to it”. Even, he adds, “in virtue itself, the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness”.

The pleasures of meaning and expression point to another crucial dimension of art’s enjoyment which is often obscured — its deeply social dimension.  Too often it is assumed that art’s enjoyment is subjective, hence essentially private and narrowly individualistic.  But even if one feels one’s aesthetic pleasure in one’s own mind and senses, this in no way precludes the shared character of our enjoyment, nor the fact that our enjoyment is heightened by our sense of its being shared.  Whether in the theatre, the concert hall, the museum, or the cinemateque, our aesthetic experience gains intensity from the sense of sharing something meaningful together, of communicating silently yet deeply by communally engaging the same potent meanings and visions of beauty, and experiencing shared pleasures. Art’s power to unite society through its enchanting pleasures of communication is a theme that resounds from Schiller to Dewey, who boldly claims that “art is the most effective mode of communication that exists”.  By creating and reinforcing group solidarity through the sharing of communicative pleasures, art’s entertainment performs a crucial social function whose evolutionary role in the development of human culture and society should not be overlooked.

With this sacralization of art comes the rigid hierarchy of high and low (a counterpart of the sacred/profane distinction). Entertainment is automatically relegated to the sphere of profane lowness, no matter how aesthetically subtle, sophisticated, and rich in meaning it may be. Even in the realm of high art, Hegel introduces a rigid hierarchy of art styles and art genres, based on their level of spiritual truth and their remoteness from materiality. The plastic arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting lie at the bottom of the ladder because of the physicality of their media.  Poetry, in contrast, stands at the top because, through its ideal medium of language, it approaches the spirituality of pure thought.

  I close with a cautionary reminder. Advocating art’s pleasures should not mean substituting them for the pleasures of life while also neglecting those victims of injustice whose lives know more misery than joy. Nor should we forget that even arts of radical social protest gain power from the zest of righteous anger and the thrill of common struggle, pleasures that enhance or complete (in Aristotle’s sense) the activity of protest.  To think that prizing pleasure means condemning art to frivolity and narcotic escapism is one more fallacy based on presuming all pleasures to be uniform and shallow, but it also rests on the trite but deadly dogma that opposes art to life.

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