Modernist Reechantments II: From Aestheticized Politics to the Artwork

by Brett R. Wheeler
Modernist Reechantments II: From Aestheticized Politics to the Artwork
Brett R. Wheeler
The German Quarterly
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Georgetown University

Modernist Reechantments 11: From Aestheticized Politics to the Artwork

[...I art was not to play an ambassadorial role but a prophetic one; not to be a series of encounters in homogenized aesthetic space but to point to new spaces altogether. Still, while the works are almost pathetically in- sufficient for the ambitions of their makers, there is something touching in the idea of seeing them linked up next to one another, all passion spent. Given the history of the century of which abstract art is the most dis- tinctive expression, this is not a bad kind of ending. If we could all coexist politically in this way, art would after all have served a model for a better form of life.

-Arthur Danto

Art and Secularization

The specter of aestheticized politics has long haunted Germany. But the spook was not always such a demon. In its youth, in- deed, the union of art and politics excited a vast spectrum of intellectuals with a promise of redemption from the cold rationality of a disenchanted world. Sociologists, philoso- phers, even jurists and artists discerned in the work of art the instantiation of an origi- nal unity of human agentsa political com- munity untroubled by fragmentation, me- diated relations, and politics absent moral

agency. To reevaluate the historical sigdkance of a union of aesthetics and politics, it needs to be placed at some safe distance from dis- courses in which it is averred prima facie. From here we can critically reevaluate the historical validity of an aesthetic reenchant- ment of politics augured by Max Weber's

famous dictum about art: "Sie iibernirnmt die Funktion einer, gleichviel wie gedeu- teten, innerweltlichen Erlosung."l The re- demption once anticipated by religious world- views was now preserved in art. This was consonant with the demands of a modern world-a secular form of integration and an immanent rather than transcendent medi- um of interaction. Thus emerged the alter- native political modality proffered by the aesthetic operations of the artwork. The sole alternative to liberal adherence to anony- mous norms or regulations was not "irra- tionalism."

Many voices joined in the chorus for a re- newal of an aesthetic alternative. Across the Rhine, Henri Bergson contended that, in the modern world, humanity had in part for- gotten what he called an "aesthetic faculty" that existed "along with normal percep- ti~n."~

This faculty allowed access via intu- ition to the more fundamental intention- ality of the world rather than the conceptual thinking of science or normative structures. It also suggested a version of autonomy defined not by the free adherence to rules championed by Kant's practical reason but to a spontaneous iteration of self in unregu- lated action. When applied intersubjectively and in concert with others, it suggested a form of politics that did not provide predi- cates for behavior or an anterior consensus on what is good or right that would then be institutionalized in norms or laws or a state apparatus.

Further, Thomas Nipperdey, Wolf Lepe- nies, and others have resurrected a socio- logical legacy that begins with Weber and

The German Quarterly 75.2 (Spring2002) 113

evinces great intimacy with the cultural and artistic crises of European modernity and not only with its social and economic mani- festations. The aesthetic conceptualization of politics was no less a challenge to social sci- entists than it was to cultural critics. Argu- ably, indeed, the whole field of sociology in Germany grew up around the generational shifts in political self-conceptions between the Griinderzeit und the period around the turn of the century3 The crisis of liberalism and the subsequent aestheticization of po- litical forms were definitive of modernist in- tellectual and cultural movements of many types. Hence, while many have seen sociol- ogy as the scientific discourse most at odds with the aesthetic tradition, it may be more accurate to see them as both concomitant and even cooperative undertakings seeking to revise the definition of political life aRer 1890 in light of new structural demands. MaxWeber, Leopold von Wiese, Georg Simmel, and Ferdinand Tonnies were at least as concerned as were Wilhelrn Dilthey, Ludwig Rubiner, Stefan George and Hugo von Hof- mannsthal with the decline of interpersonal politics and ethics--of the associations of individuals organizing a common life and a common self-conception.

Especially in that remarkable intellec- tual circle that can be drawn around Georg Simmel, Max Weber and Georg Lukacs, there emerged a group of sociologists and social critics who were among the keenest observers and most perspicacious critics of the role of aesthetics in "reenchanting the world." Their sociology was contiguous with artistically and aesthetically inspired hopes for redemption. These figures were notably also among the most sensitive to the histori- cal and philosophical limitations placed on aesthetics as a medium of redemption from those ills of liberalism that Nietzsche had di- agnosed in the early years of Imperial Ger- many. Still, it was a co-founder of German sociology, Georg Simmel, who broke new ground in constructing an aesthetic founda- tion for a society not reliant on instrumental modes of social integration and cohesion. As it had for Weber as well, the journey for Simmel began with a study of religion.

In the mid-1890s, this brilliant neo- Kantian thinker undertook a somewhat un- systematic reevaluation of the hnction of religion as a social form. He was particularly interested in the modes of self-reflective so- cialization enacted by religion and the con- sequences of its loss to a secular society. For religion, he concluded, constituted not only a beam in the ideological superstructure of oppression. Perhaps it was this as well. But, at a more elemental level, Simmel discerned a socially universalistic component to reli- gion, something he called an "eigne Wesen- heit," representing a fundamental part of so- ciety, one potentially endangered by the pro- cesses of moderni~ation.~

Like Bergson, he found himself living in a period of severe cognitive limitations. These were limitations imposed by the removal of reason from the intersubjective domain of politics and social relations and its increasingly exclusive rele- gation of autonomy to the sovereignty of the individual subject. In an essay on the socio- logical hction of religion from 1898 he wrote,

Freilich mag iiberall ein Punkt erreicht werden, an dem die Erkliirung der inne- ren Thatsachlichkeit aus blorj inneren Be- dingungen nicht mehr zulangt, sondern erst eine aurjere Wirklichkeit den Ursa- chenkreis der inneren zu schlierjen ver- mag. (Simmel 122)

The liberal regime both courted the lonely subject as the source of knowledge and cog- nition, and overdetermined this subjectiv- ity with the heavy cloak of what Simmel familiarly labeled "objektive Kultur."

The objective institutions and regulated regime of modern society suffered from a decline in what Simmel identified as "die inter-individuellen Formen des sozialen Le- bens, [die] vielfach den religiosen Vorstel- lungen ihren Inhalt geben" (118) as well as in "subjektive Kultur" and the power and autonomy of individual expression. What religion offered to "adere Wirklichkeit" was "eine einzigartige Mischung des Glau- bens, im Sinne einer Erkenntdart, mit praktischen Impulsen und Empfindungszu- stinden" that was absent from liberal public life (Simmel116). These were the residua of universal structures of social life strangled by modernity:

Und man kann vielleicht sagen, dalj die oft so wunderlichen und abstrusen religio- sen Vorstellungen ihreMacht in den mensch- lichen Verhdtnissen gar nicht hatten er- langen konnen, wenn sie nicht die bloDe Formel oder Verkorperung schon vorher vorhandener VerhdtniDformen wiiren, fur die das BewuDtsein nur noch keinen ge- schickteren Ausdruck gefunden hat. (Sim- me1 114)

Religion was thus not merely an archaic structure of hegemony. It was also a site on which a certain kind of social relation- ship could be retained and practiced-a relationship enunciating the crucial inter- subjective cognition seriously endangered by the disenchanted world diagnosed by Weber.

Simmel was himself everything but de- vout. In the tradition of the left-Hegelians in the 1840s, religion embodied for him a socio-existential function,not a theological system of belief. Faith and religion were social practices in which mixtures of "von sinnlicher Unrnittelbarkeit und unsinnlicher Abstraktion" were mediated in ways other social institutions and practices could not ac- complish (Simmel 113). But he also recog- nized that religion could no longer serve as the institutional venue for that "eigne Weisheit," the concrete manifestation ofintersubjedivity. A secular world required an equally secular structure of political cogni- tion. A "geschickterer Ausdruck" must there- fore be found for the social-integrative forms of human life and development. And, con- curring again with Weber, Bergson, Dilthey, Rubiner, and so many others, Simrnel along with his one-time student, Georg Lukacs, looked to another realm for the potential of redemption-to aesthetics.

With aesthetics now manifestingitself as a quasi-cognitive faculty, the religious func- tion within the secular dimensions of mod- ern society could bepreserved on the plane of art. The prophetic character of this redemp- tion made it tragic. For the final promise of redemption from the bureaucratic, regu- lated field of politics was being made by an aesthetic fiction, namely the work of art. An entity defined precisely by not being true was supposed to rescue history. Figuring out how artworks exist and how they function, even as semblance, had become portentous.

Building on his teacher's sociological idealism, in work beginning around 1910, LukAcs undertook a magisterial project, de- vising an ontology of the artwork that would guarantee it as a locus for autonomy and redemption in the modern world without re- enchanting the world. For it was, he divined, a site ordered by the fictional significatory practices and forms that were its constitu- ents. LukAcs's point of departure relied on theprima facie and universal agreement on the phenomenality of artworks-that is, on their facticity. The brute existence of works of art alone should guarantee a concrete uto- pia, expressing and overcoming the tragedy of our alienation from one another and from the world in which we make our "Heimat" as LukAcs liked to call it:

Das Werk bedeutet, dalj es eine Welt gibt,

da13 es eine vollkommene harmonische, in

sich abgeschlossene, begluckende Totali-

tat gibt. Es ist eine Art utopischer Welt,

die in allem unserer sehnsuchsvollen, ver-

langenden Wirklichkeit entspricht. [...]

Jede Kunst entspricht einem Bedurfnis,

einem tiefen Leiden der Menschheit-

und diese Leiden der Menschheit entspricht

dem Objektiven, der empirisch sich selbst

und uns unangemessenen Welt [...I.~

Art thus bespeaks a loss of which it is itself the last residue. In a productive elaboration of LukAcs's, and later also Theodor W Adorno's work,

J.M. Bernstein has gone so far as to claim in this respect that art is coextensive with poli- tics.Were, on the level of signification, the non-coerced cooperation of the constituent parts of the work enact an autonomy-the ability to exist (or to 'mean') without norms or standards except those given to itself in the very activity of signification. This ap- plies, of course, most easily to modern, non- referential art, in which signification occurs almost exclusively on the level of form rather than referential content. In the modernist artwork the heterogenous subject and object of the world of experience come to share the world of the artwork from which they are also only analytically distinct. In the artwork subject and object, medium and material, form and content have become homogenous. Artistic beauty is thus the shadow in the cave, indicating a transcendental agreement of subject and object, a philosophical truth about existence that findsits home nowhere but in the work of art.

A Semblance of Magic

The artwork has learned to redeem, Lu- kAcs maintained. It could enact itself, repre- senting an object without dividing the opera- tions of representation into subjective and objective components. It is not really a rep- resentation at all. For the artwork as an agent has no anterior object of representa- tion, even if it reminds us of one. It is what it presents. Moreover, when it appears as itself, the artwork does so without the help of any rules. The modality of its self-presentation is manifest only in the semblance it renders. The determinants of what it is and how it is are logically concomitant with its factual existence. These paradoxes embody what is meant by the autotelesis and autonomy of art.The ensuing significance of the artwork as an enclosedunit is the product of an opera- tion that is quite different from the way in which the worlds of society and nature sig-

w. is equally dis-

How each can be

by extension, between what we perceive as material of knowledge (phenomena) and what actually exists super-experientially in the universe (noumena), knowable only spec- ulatively.

These in-between distances are the exis- tential manifestation of disenchantment- the lack of magical immediacy. And they secure an instrumental rationality between subjective agents and their world, including other subjects. Since in the artwork actual significance and significatory possibility emerge from the same material, the subject of action and knowledge, and the objects of its knowledge or of its actions are only ana- lytically distinct. The artwork enacts a leap across the chasm of its existence. Unlike all other intelligible reality, the semblance that is the artwork's significance provides the condition of possibility to its own existence. Thus is disenchantment contested-by semblance and fiction.

To grasp fully its cultural-historical sig- nificance, it is important to look to LukAcs's elaborate philosophy of the artwork in the complex treatise, unsuccessfully submitted to the University of Heidelberg as his Habilitation in 1918, for the political potential it envisaged in the artwork. These writings articulated a vision of the artwork as a negative model for politics. In the artwork the figural space of which the work consists is determi- nate; it has discrete borders that distinguish it from the world of reality. But within these borders there is both a freedom for the par- ticular constituent parts of the work and a harmony in their common goal of bringing forth a semblance, an ideal aesthetic object that the artwork seems to be representing. This non-coerced community of particulars is possible by virtue of what Adorno would later call the

subjektive Paradoxie von Kunst: Blindes -den Ausdruck-aus Reflexion-durch Form--zu produzieren; das Blinde nicht zu rationalisieren sondern iisthetisch iiber-

tinct. Most hp~rtant, in the red qua actual haupt herzustellen.7 world, knowledge is conditioned precisely on the division between subject and object and, Because it hlfills the aesthetic promise of actualization without rules and of praxis without norms, the artwork is a semblance of emancipation without finally being untrue. Its existence evidences the possibility of freedom with utopian political conse- quences. This promise adopts an occasionally mellifluous, if still sober voice in this pas- sage by Adorno that magdies Lukh's la- tently political philosophy of art:

Dem ist gemiil3 der zentrale Sachverhalt, d& aus den Kunstwerken, auch den so- genannten individuellen, ein Wir spricht und kein Ich, und zwar desto reiner, je we- niger es auljerlich einem Wir und dessen Idiom sich adaptiert. [...I Dichtungen sind durch ihre unmittelbare Teilnahme an der kommunikativen Sprache, von der keine ganz loskommt, auf ein Wir bezo- gen; ihrer eigenen Sprachlichkeit zuliebe mussen sie sich abmuhen, jener ihnen auswendigen, mitteilenden ledig zu wer- den. Aber dieser Prozelj ist nicht. wie er erscheint und sich selber dunkt, einer der puren Subjektivierung. Durch ihn schkiegt sich dis Subjekt dir kollektiven Erfahrung um so inniger sich an, je spro- der es sich gegen ihren sprachlich verge- gensthdlichten Ausdruck macht.[. ..] Das ssthetische Wir ist gesamtgesellschaftlich im ~~~i~~~~ einiger unbestimmtheit, frei- lich such so bestimmt wie die herrschen- den Produktivkrsfte und Produktions- verhdtnisse einer ~~oche.~

Within the artwork, the constituents of the work's significance manifest a utopian po- litical hope, a hope for an association that is not falsely reconciled to the whole-to the semblance--by an anterior concept or arule. However, this uncoerced, and hence also unreconciled whole emerges not from an indeterminate space, i.e., within a world of unconditioned action or volunta- ristic practice. Rather, the determinacy of this emancipatory irreconcilability is the boundary, or the frame, of the artwork. By virtue of this boundary, which the artwork posits for itself, Lukacs argued, the artwork becomes a "konkrete Totalitat," a space determined both by the specific manner in which its elements relate and also by the communicative medium in which it par- ticipate~.~

The artwork thereby mimics a utopian politics even while it dialectically denies its realization.

The artwork can occupy this dual onto- logical status, as both autotelic and comrnu- nicative, thanks to what might properly be considered its pure intentionality, or to what L&cs calledits "Standpunkt:"

So enthullt sich hier ganz deutlich der paradoxe, doppeltfiktionsartige Charak- ter des "Standpunkts;" einerseits muCj das aus dem "Standpunkt" folgende Rela- tionssystem so betrachtet werden, als ob es das einzig mogliche und wirksame Rea- litatsprinzip wiire, gleichzeitig mulj aber andererseits der "Standpunkt" selbst so aufgefdt werden, als ob er nichts anderes wiire als die Stimme, in der das Wesen der Dinge als Dinge laut wird. Erst aus dem Zusammenfallen beider Fiktionen kann die Realitst des Werkes entstehen.1°

the artwork,s unregulated organizing perspective, the "Standpunkt" empowers the work, as self-positing signification and as participation in communication, to overcome what Hegel had called the "Ent- zweiung" of subject and object-the logical division of what must absolutely onto- logically be one domain into two. It is, how- ever, part of the artwork's tragedy that it remains a double fiction. Only by a leap of faith-the "Zusarnmenfallen beider Fik- tionen"--can the artwork actualize its potential. What it can represent is only a semblance, an aesthetic image. Hence the artwork, in Lukacs's terms that would have also agreed in slight variation with Adorno's, is a mimetic reproduction of a redeemed world in which subject and ob- ject are homogenously conceived, tending toward one another. l1 At the same time, however, the frame of the work, which mimics the tragic unattainability of this redemption, accompanies this formal mi- metic operation occurring on the level of the work's signification. The very existence of the artwork as semblance recapitulates the ontological estrangement of subject and object in the world of reality that pre- vents the translation of the autotelic mi- metic capacity-the aesthetic authority of the artwork-into something more than the virtual.

So it was that aesthetics offered redemp- tion as an artistic illusion. And with this we have ascertained a bipartite truth for mod- ernism: first, that there was a faculty, an "aesthetic" one, that putatively offered ac- cess to the world and allowed agents to inter- act immediately (hence, it is a faculty that re- deems politics from liberalism); and, second, that this faculty is concretized in the artwork, as the artwork both sidles without extraneous mediation and also mimics-by virtue of it being a world set apart-a perfect political community, even in a seemingly ab- struse and intensive form as a fiction.

The Frame and 
Aesthetic Melancholy 

The intensity of the artwork's self-emancipation was to prove devastating, even tragic, for its political potential. But for now Ldcs was most concerned to ground with philosophical rigor the redemptive capacity of the artwork and the autonomy of its emancipatory semblance. It would be left for later to contend with the inexorable conse- quences that the framing-the fictional de- termination-f aestheticized politics would have for the association of real political con- stituents. They would end up waiting anxiously for a redemption of their own that would turn out to be both illusory and an illu- sion.

On the philosophical plane, unburdened by the weight of cultural or political crisis, Ldcs was most interested in the way this distinct and discrete world of the artwork -this "Kosmos", as he liked to call it-can exist without reference, completely autono- mously. In short, he was interested in the way artworks create their own limits and how they enframe themselves immanently. The frame of artbecame crucial for the arith- metic of Ldcs's rendering of the aesthetic dimension of politics. For, really and meta- phorically, it marks the point of decision be- tween the inside and the outside of a form. The frame lying at that point of decision, the process of discerning its concrete constitu- tion and determining whether it belongs more to the inside or to the outside will prove decisive for what the outside world might ex- pect from the aesthetic world inside. Is the frame merely an ornamental and arbitrary conclusion ofart,set there toremind us what we know already, namely that the work ends at the frame; or is it the necessary precondi- tion of art, set there by the work as its limit? Is the frame something we could rip away in order to emancipate its content, or is it actu- ally part of the content without which the artwork would vanish? Finally, is the artwork reliant on its extrinsic function, or does the frame mark simply another point of self- satisfied apathy toward the outside world?

Pondering these pressing questions at the turn of the century, Simmel became con- vinced that the latter applied in each case. The frame belonged to the other world, he claimed, to the world of semblance. Even the very border of art belonged immanently to art and to its fictional domain outside our grasp, with everything within it secured by a self-determining limit. Further, in his in- triguing 1902 explication of the artistic frame, Simmel went on to assert that the quality of the limit was different from all oth- ers:

[Der Bildrahmen] scheidet das Kunst- werk von jedem Stiick Natur. Denn als na- turliches Dasein ist jedes Ding ein bloljer Durchgangspunkt ununterbrochen flie- Dender Energien und Stoffe, verstandlich nur aus Vorangehendem, bedeutsam nur als Element des gesamten Naturprozes- ses. [...]So bedeuten seine Grenzen etwas ganz anderes, als was man an einem na- turlichen Dinge Grenzen nennt: bei die- sem sind sie nur der Ort fortwahrender Exosmose und Endosmose mit allem Jen-

seitigen, dort aber jener unbedingte Ab- schlurj, der die Gleichgiiltigkeit und Ab- wehr nach a&n und den vereinheitlichen- den Zusammenschlurj nach innen in einem Akte ausiibt.12

Nature, politics, and society can only envy the kind of self-determining power that the artwork's frame can assert. For their borders are determined by what lies on both sides, while the artwork's frame faces only inward. The frame does not so much actually determine the work of art.Rather, it concretizes the artwork's self-determi- nacy and is the artwork's ultimate deci- sion. In Lukacs's philosophical exegesis of the artwork, the frame ultimately serves not only to delineate the work but also to annul the reality that lies outside it, at least with regard to the ontological condi- tion of the work. The frame, he would an- nounce,

bedeutet eine so absolute Annihilierung von allem, was, bildlich gesprochen, au- Der dem Rahmen liegt, wie es bei keiner anderen Setzungsart vorgefunden werden kann.13

So much for politics becoming art.

As Simmel attested, phenomenologically this border differs from natural and social borders in that it marks extrinsically the rad- ical discontinuity of what lies on either side: an act of indifference. In his "Soziologie des Raumes," written a year later, Simmel con- firmed the basic need for borders as a socio- logical and anthropological determinant of group cohesion and of subjects' individual in- tegrity within groups. In these cases, besides securing the integrity of a social unity, the border-that "soziologische Tatsache, die sich raumlich formt"l4-also points to the in- dividual's or the group's necessary aliena- tion from the world as a whole, a condition of diremption. Any cohesive and intelligible en- tity requires itself to be posited and hence de- limited as a form by which that entity first becomes intelligible. Therefore, unlike the artwork, for which the frame actually signi- fies the absolute, indifferent immanence of its totality, every other non-natural border is a "soziologisches GeschehenU-a line, which is both the condition of possibility for the entity it borders and likewise a melancholy marker of this status as the victim of irre- deemable fragmentation from what lies out- side.l5 Its border always belongs to something else as well. The gdded luster of the frame, by contrast, radiates only indifference to the wall without.

Interest in the redemptive promise of ar- tistic determinacy was not isolated to Sim- mel. Among others, the art historian and Simmel's contemporary Alois Riegl also commented extensively on the spatial conditions of artistic self-determinacy and aesthetic au- tonomy.16 And in 1912, the Viennese critic Otto Stoessl wrote an incisive article in the journal Saturnon the conditions of poetic space. Stoessl reiterated the now familiar axiom that all works of art need to be spa- tially delimited, even while this border con- tains infinite content that signdies by the particular formal associations of its constitu- ents. But their frame also transforms artworks into the "Traum einer erlosbaren Einheit der Welt," he exclaimed somewhat ecstatically.l7In his short essay, Stoessl ex- panded the definition of the frame beyond the spatial determinacy of framed paintings, which were Simmel's concern. Even as surface, line, and color delimit a painting, Stoessl contended, language-its grammar and its temporal sequenceis the determin- ing frame of poetry.

For all these writers, the constitution of the artwork's frame seemed to depend on the kind of artwork whose determinacy it served to mark. Indeed, as we see in Stoessl's attempt to define the frame of spatially non- discrete artworks, the question of determi- nacy necessarily invoked the need for a def- inition of the artwork in general. Yet an ab- stract definition of the artwork covering all its possible genres and forms, would, as Luk6cs persistently pointed out, always be at odds with itselfla For any definition of the artwork needs to account for each work's singularity suigeneris. Each workmust be a theory of itself, as Friedrich Schlegel was wont to aphorize. Immanently posited, self- creating and self-determining, the artworkcantolerate no heteronomous prescriptions or even defacto normative descriptions of its nature, since each artwork, as a radically irnmanent, self-disclosing entity, sets the stan- dards for its own siMication. The artwork thus provides the conditions for its own exis- tence. We have aproto-concept, the constitu- ents of which are entirely incommensurable with one another yet nonetheless in a rela- tion of necessary harmony. Thus did Ldcs conclude here that the artwork effectively exceeds the theoretical modes of perception that require a subject and an object of cogni- tion. Its mere existence enacts the redica- tion of discrete agents of communication asa homogenous medium of communication.

If the artwork was understood, then, as a particular kind of space, in which meaning- 11communication between parts-in Adorno's term, as a virtual "Wirn--could occur spontaneously and without reference to the outside world, then the artwork is a kind of perverse utopia. And the boundary of the artwork establishes a limit to a redemptive space where the conditions for knowledge and the existence of the whole cosmos---of Being itself-are identical:

Die Grenzen bezeichnen also nicht die Li- nie, wo ein Anderssein beginnt oder be- ginnen kann, sondern leiten vielmehr zu den immanenten, aus der Idee des Werkes sich ergebenden und von ihr aus notwen- digen Hohepunkten und Ausklingungen und von diesen in das Zentrum ihrer Welt zuruck. Eine Welt, der gegenuber eine Abgrenzung notig ware, gibt es gar nicht: das ist der Sinn dieser Grenzen, darum sind sie wahrhaft immanente Grenzen, Gren- Zen, die einem Kosmos ~ukornmen.'~

Unlike social or natural borders, so con- ceived the artwork's border is the posited limit to the world-the absolute marker of self-realized dimensionality, indifferent to other worlds existing outside it.

The frame is, therefore, both a material site at rest or in wait and the limit of the si&icatory praxis. It is and it emrges as one and the same thing, both a sidier of a limit and the expression of that limit, both a connotative and denotative feature of the work of art. In writings from the 1970s on the possibility of meaning in art, Jacques Derrida will echo the determinate indeter- minacy of artworks in a paradoxical analytic of their borders-or what he calls the parergon, neither inside nor outside the work (ergon). The fact is, Derrida contends, that there are works of art.20 But if works of art are to be comprehensible as entities that are more than just factually and unquestion- ably there, then what lies tenuously at the border between them and everything else must "designate a formal and general predi- cative structure, which one cantransport in- tact or deformed and reformed according to certain rules, into other fields, to submit new contents to it" (Derrida 55). Even while al- lowing for their particular indeterminacy, we must also be able to include artworks' lirmts, at least analyticalls: in discourse.

Short of offering a definition of art- works themselves, Derrida will join Lukacs in philosophically circumscribing the point at which the work makes manifest its exis- tence: at its frame. Even after 70 years, the frame has given up little of its enigmatic character.As a hybrid edge that disappears as a limit even while remaining very con- crete as a material thing, if anything the delirmtation of art has become more chal- lengingphilosophically than ever, something not so surprising given its history. It "melts away," Derrida will write, "at the moment it deploys its greatest energy. The frame is in no case a background in the way that the mi- lieu of the work canbe, but neither is its thickness as margin a figure" (61). In the now familiar paradox, beauty requires what Derrida names its "parergonal edging, some- thing indeterminately determined by itself. " What circumscribes a beautiful object, "is not only external," for its edge qualitatively distinguishes itself from edge of convention- al objects (128). Qute predictably, indeed, the concrete, external limitation of the art- work is, in Derrida's quaintly sophistic lan- guage, "an outside which is called to the in- side of the inside in order to constitute it as an inside" (63).

Derrida adheres, perhaps ironically, to a modernist legacy. There are some variations in the quality of the frame's immanent de- termination by the artwork. But he, Simmel, and Lacs would agreethat we cannot con- sider art theoretically without confronting the point of indifference manifested by the frame, an indifference that is invisible and immanent to the work of art, as well as some- thing "thick" and "atropic" (Derrida 9).This recapitulates the paradox of the artwork. It remains a concrete and material entity, sub- ject to scientific descriptions of its grammar, tonal frequencies, materials, and spatial di- mensions, even while its emanation brooks no scientific determinants at all for its mean- ing or its incommensurable signification.

This is why the artwork is def~tively different from reality, at least, again,as a con- stituent of modernism. Whereas the existen- tial constitution of the real world bears no available relationship to the meaning it has for us (i.e., it presents no model for compre- hension on its own that is extra-subjective), the artwork represents an identity between its material cumpresubjective constitution and the categories of its comprehensibility. The subject and the object actually refer to one anotherapriori. Consonant with Roland Barthes's penetrating remark that art fulfills and exemplifies the "institutionalization of s~bjectivity,"~~ and perhaps also

L&s, Simmel and Stoessl, perceived in the possi- bility of the artwork's frame the suggestion of a utopian unity of existence and meaning that modernity had driven asunder.

This harmony remains, however, a cos- mic utopia. It is a self-conscious fiction, sharply distinguished from religious tran- scendence. For, while its autonomy is pre- served by virtue of its fictionality, which we can now identify as a constituent feature of the border, if not identical with it, it signifies by participating in a communicative me- dium that itself is not produced by the artwork but is rather practiced only in a perfect, non-instrumental form in it. This fictional- ity transforms the work into what L&cs would call an ontological "MilJverstiindnis" -its capacity to mean without meaning something in particu1ar.n The artwork is also a symbol for a fundamental condition of human existence -the removal of the world in which we live from our immediate percep- tion. Lacs posited that "das transcenden- tale Motiv zur ~ntstehun~

des hthetischen eine 'subjektive' Sehnsucht nach einer dem Subjekt angemessenen Wirklichkeit i~t."~~ Discovering whether the world-or, for Lu- Ucs,how the world-is in harmony with us is an unanswerable metaphysical question. As "MilJverstAndnis" the artwork is the con- crete manifestation of this unanswerability, a happy melancholic. The metaphysically tragic condition of mankind that is also beyond the understanding of mankind gives rise to the artwork as a "gliicklicher Z~fall."~~

It is an uncanny expression ofwhat we cannot know and of "unaussprechbaren Gesetzen" guid- ing the harmony of the world, rules that, on- tologically speaking, cannot really exi~t.~5 Artworks bear witness to what should not be.

Thus, as I suggested above with refer- ence to Adorno, the artwork is pure me- dium, the enactment of language as perma- nent conversation without interest in its use or reference to conditional norms. As such, it is homologous to pure action--except that it is not action that 'happens' in the normal sense, but rather action that 'means.' The facticity of the artwork leads us inexorably toward the conclusion that it must be the re- flective manifestation of a lost regulative to- tality It induces, according to Lacs, the "doch nie vertilgbare Gefiihl" that, if we set aside the imperatives of everyday life, we would be led unmistakably toward the telos of an "allgemeine und gemeinsame Welt."26 Perhaps it is, then, with anticipation and a tinge of anxiety that we should face the artwork as the prophetic portend of messianic redemption. But in the end we must ask whether its framed indifference canever be more than a reminder, or whether it actually suggests a model for the future. A sigh of re- signed relief may ultimately be in order.

At very least we can now see how L&cs discerned in art the signs of a lost immediacy. Along with his modernist compeers, he also hoped it might augur its own actualization. Artencouraged this hope by exhibiting what Lacs, on several occasions, associated with a desire for communication that has been at- tenuated by the broken totality of a commu- nicative community brought about by the di- vision of life into discrete value spheres. If it cannot transcend the realm of actuality, as did religion, the artwork canat least fulfd as a fiction the fhction of religious transcen- dence for its immanent constituents. Now that the work of art has circumnavigated the craggy shoals and the fragmented coast-line of its ontological validity,

Die Kunst scheint nun pradestiniert zu sein, um diese Lucke auszufullen: alle Fluchtigkeit und Flussigkeit der blo13en ~~l~b~i~~~hlir~

hat hinter sic-, gelas- sen und sich zu einer weit uber Menschen und Zeiten hinausgehenden Objektivitgt erhoben, und in ihren unmittelbaren Wir- kungen treffen sich und vereinen sich die allein gebliebenen Subjekte. Die Kunst scheint die Sphlire zu sein, in der die Un- mittelbarkeit der Wirkung nicht auf Kos- ten ihrer Eindeutigkeit erreicht wird und damit scheint jede Angst und Sorge um das Eingesperrtsein des Individuums in sein Subjekt gehoben.27

This undoubtedly served for Lukacs not only as a description of the artwork but also of the aesthetic faculty by which so many modernists hoped the subject could free itself of its own discursive determi- nants, becoming instead a "konkrete Tota- litat" in immediate relation with the world of experience. The work was documented proof that, without God or a referent, the subject-object identity could be overcome in a conversation that acts on its recipients like a call to unity.

The Artwork and the Antinomy of 
Aesthetics and Politics 

L&cs repeatedly noted the difficulty in defining the self-positing operation of the artwork in any other than negative terms. Even his own private criterion for the border between art and non-art was one of nega- tion: based on his early (and, in hiseyes, not particularly successfd) attempts at writing dramas, L&cs declared wryly that a piece of writing could not be art if it was something he could have written.28 But beyond this candid determinate, even artworks' positive ca- pacities-their self-positing, self-legislating autotelic characteristics-seemed deeply de- pendent on their nonreferentiality, their re- fusal to adhere to norms, their rejection of instrumental reason, and, above all,on their character as negative reflections of a lost unity. Even their redemptive promise is based in their inability to &1l it.

Ultimately, then, the unattainable reen-

Weber and Dilthe~sought in art represented a leitmotif of larger cultural currents.29 And with this we have today a historical frame within which to situate the promise and limitations of an emergent aes- theticization of politics, the faculty for hu- man interaction distinct from both scien- tific rationality and normative theories of action at home in a more 'authentic' prac- tice of social or political intercourse. There are unmistakable cultural-historical cross- currents among movements that are often portrayed at odds with one another. Among sociology's fascination with mass society, the renaissance of Hegelian thinking in Marxism to counter its evolutionist or 'revisionist' strains, the Sorelian, anarcho-syndicalist ad- vocacy of violence, and finally the widely popular thought of Henri Bergson, there was a common desire to reexercise the atrophed muscles of political expression that had so long been in disuse in the narrow spaces of anonymous legislative and bureaucratic bodies.

At this point, though, Lacs's philosoph- ical insights give pause to our historical re- suscitation of aestheticized politics. Art and aesthetic forms of reason, it is true, played crucial roles in the conceptualization and the self-understanding of political auton- omy, political action, and ethical life in mod- ernist thought. It is critical, however, to understand the status of the work of art as the locus for this aesthetic logic and the ques- tions to which this status gives rise: isthis lo- cus materially specific-i.e., is the work of art the artifactual and material residue of a lost political practice? Or, as contended by the avant-garde from Filippo Marinetti to Hugo Ball, can the logic of aesthetics resi- dent in the artwork be extraded from the work of art by destroying the material limita- tions of the work itselfand imposing the logic of its internal operations on the whole of the political world?

In other words, canaesthetics give up its frame and still be aesthetic; or canpolitics, as envisioned by the futurists, learn to frame it- self like the artwork? What are the conse- quences, in the former case,of appropriating the freedom so sought &r in the aesthetic model to the exclusion of the artwork? The prospect of having political freedom played out in this place set apart, framing itself like an artwork, seems either melancholic or ter- nfylngly absurd. How, then, did the artwork become relevant for actual ethical or even political behavior beyond the philosophical model if its implications appear so distort ed?rn

The loss of determinacy inherent in the artwork and enacted by its frame when put in the service of politics was a danger that commentators recognized. With regard to such politicization of the artwork's auton- omy, Max Weber, for one, was particularly critical of the George-Kreis, several mem- bers of which-including George himself- he knew relatively ~ell.3~

In 1910, Weber in- veighed against the threat to the autonomy of the artwork posed by an emphasis on the larger political, metaphysical, or other "Mis- sion," which it is supposed to serve. The re- demptive quality of art, he made clear, lies in the independence that the artwork achieves from the world at large by abidingby laws in- trinsic to its form. Weber advocated for the preservation of aesthetic autonomy within the work of art.32 By reaching out for a re- demption of the world-by reaching out for the prophetic habituethe poet loses sight of the more intimate potential of art for "Selbst-Vergottung" rather than redemp ti~n.~~

Arthas a redemptive potential, as Lu- bcs was to establish, precisely due to its self-limitation,becauseit can be formally free within its mated limitations or its frame and not hope with prophetic hubris to re- enchant or redeem the world outside the work. Weber claimed that the redemptive ef- forts of the George-Kreis led

stets nur zum orgiastischen Drohnen ei- ner Stimme, die dann als ewige Stimme erscheint, nie, mit anderen Worten, zu Inhalten, sondern nur zu einem leiden- schaftlichen Harfengeton. Ein Verspre- chen eines ungeheuren, Erlosung garan- tierenden Erlebnisses, wird durch ein anderes, noch grol3eres iiberboten, immer werden neue Wechsel auf das, was kom- men soll, gezogen, obwohl die Uneinlos- lichkeit offen zutage liegt. Und da es iiber dies rein formale Prophetentum hinaus, schliel3lich keine Steigerung mehr gibt, ist der Dichter auf der bestandigen Suche nach dem postulierten Inhalt seiner Pro- phezeiung begriffen ohne ihn jedoch er- haschen zu konnen. 84

Weber eschewed new prophesies and ac- cepted the limited capacity to reenchant only the intimate sphere and not the politi- cal one. George, as one of the poet's circle notes, was an anachronism for Weber.35 A leap from aesthetic geniality to politically charismatic art had lost its theological- historical foundation. In breaching the po- litical realm with a force of spontaneity and expressiveness that belonged to an age of enchanted communal life, George was pursuing a logic of disaster.

Remarkably, this contradiction, which Weber identified in the violation of the aes- thetic limitations of art, anticipated the self- destructive logic in the avant-garde's efface- ment of art in the name of freedom-their aestheticization of politi~s.~~

For Weber, mod- ern life was clearly trapped in an irresolvable tension between asceticism and eroticism. He accepted Nietzsche's diagnosis of moder- nity's fall from transcendence. However, we have seen that, while individuals are tragi- cally thrown back on themselves to discover and express signficance in their lives imma- nently, Weber persisted stoically in his view that these conflicting forces need to be, in one commentator's apt words, "preserved in their own borders."37 However tragic the historical consequent, aesthetics and poli- tics should not be allowed to commingle or colonize each other's territory.

So,has aestheticized politics gotten a bad rap, or is the reputation deserved? The an- swer to both questions is yes, of course. As a political hope of modernism, the redemptive quality of aestheticized politics must be taken seriously. Modernist sociologists, critics, and artists recognized in the work of art-by virtue of its self-enframing, autotelic phe- nomenality that overcomes the normativism of subject-object diremptions-a redemptive model for political association, however sub- limated in substance. Indeed, such arecogni- tion, I have suggested, is historically consti- tutive of what modernism denotes. At the same time, however, the logic of the work of art, ontologically and epistemologically, was properly perceived to be determined by its fictionality and its frame.

Aestheticized politics, therefore, had po- litical potential in that negative form mani- fested by the artwork during modernism. The artwork's frame, its ironic seduction, its tragic fictionality: these were the conditions of possibility for an aesthetic emancipation of liberalist politics. Hence, to understand the real


politics is to return the work of art to its mod- ernkt place of prominenc*philos0phically as potential, and historically as warning against the actualization of this potential. p here fore,aestheticized politics remains the lingering recollection, or perhaps the sem- blance, of emancipation, a perverse object in the melancholy libraries and museums of a modernist past.

At its origins in the confluence of aes- thetic and political interests at the fin-de- sickle, the artwork had a substantive role to play in the critical redemption of politics from the disenchantment and alienation ap- parently inherent in liberalism and func- tionalist bureaucracy. Arising from religion and later loosed of their traditionalist bur- den, its ontological conditions found a new home in aesthetics. And in both forums, they operated as a form of cognition that was parallel to and not necessarily at odds with discursive rationality or the functionalist ra- tionality that served to alleviate, in Jiirgen Habermas's terms, the burden of adminis- trative and regulative complexity that the democratic political process alone could never encompass.38 However, as we have seen, the kind of particularity that aesthetic auton- omy manifested in the concrete work of art ended up being determined-being framed -in a way that rendered it incommensura- ble with its application to the realm of real politics.

The structure of aesthetic autonomy may prove inapplicable or non-transferable to politics. But such constraints on our object should not make us pull back from the task of revising the historiographic accounts of its role in the development of political culture in Germany where its impact was everything but unequivocal and certainly not unambig- uously pernicious. If not an embrace, then at least critical respect should begin a rendez- vous with aestheticized politics as the once enthusiastic paramour of modernism.


lMax Weber, Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Reli- g~onssoi~o(ogie,vol 1 (Tubingen: J,C.B, Mohr,

1972) 555,

2Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Random House,

1944) 194.

3011 the history of sociology, see the historical work of Theodor Fred Abel, Systematic Sociol-

ogy in Germany: A Critical Analysis of Some At- tempts to Establish Sociology as an Independ- ent Science (New York: Columbia UP, 1929); see also the classical work by Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1970); and Yoshio Atoji, Sociology at the Turn of the Century: On

G. Simmel in Comparison with F. Tonnies, M. Weber and E. Durkheim (Tokyo: Dobunkan, 1984). For the relation of sociology to Lukacs in particular, see Harry Liebersohn, Fate and Utopia in German Sociology 1870-1 923 (Cam- bridge, MA: MIT P, 1988) and David Frisby,

The Alienated Mind: The Sociology of Knowl- edge in Germany 1918-1933 (London: Rout- ledge, 1992); and the informative and critical essay by Jurgen Habermas, "Sozioloie in der Weimarer Repubik," in Texte und Kontexte (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1991) 184-204.

4Georg Simmel, "Zur Soziologie der Reli- gion,"Neue deutsche Rundschau 9 (1898): 113. Subsequent references to this work will be cited parenthetically.

5Georg Lukacs, ~eidelberger~sthetik

(1 91 61918), eds. Gyorgy Markus and Frank Benseler (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1974) 233. This is one of two volumes consisting of manuscripts found in a Heidelberg vault at the end of Lu- kacs's life. The manuscripts were left there af- ter his departure from Germany in 1918, and after the habilitation, formally written with Heinrich Rickert, was rejected by the faculty of the University of Heidelberg in the fall of that year, shortly before the Hungarian revolution.

6SeeJ.M. Bernstein, The Fate ofArt: Aesthet- ic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno

(University Park: Penn StateUP, 1992) 1-16.

ITheodor W. Adorno, ~sthetische Theorie (Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp, 1970) 174. 8Ibid 250-51. gGeorg Lukacs, Heidelberger Philosophie der

Kunst (1912-1914), eds. Gyorgy Mhrkus and Frank Benseler (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1974) 112.

1°Ibid 110.

llTo be sure, Adorno was sharply critical of Lukacs's often-dogmatic advocacy of realism in later years. At this point, however, before the latter's turn to Marxism, the phenomeno- logical development of the artwork's determi- nants would have been shared by both think- ers. Adorno diverged through a radicalization of Lukacs's Hegelian Marxism. He was both more doubtful of the artwork's self-evidence and more convinced that it reflects the subli- mated pain emanating from a historical frac- ture in political and social life. See Adorno's "Erprel3te Versohnung," in Noten zur Litera- tur (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974) 251-80.

12Georg Simmel, "Der Bildrahmen. Ein as- thetischer Versuch," in Gesamtausgabe,vol. 7: Aufsatze und Abhandlungen 1901-1 908, vol. 1, eds., Rudiger Kramme, et al. (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1995) 101-08; here 101.

13Lukacs,Heidelberger ~sthetik 12.

l4Georg Simmel, "Soziologie des Raumes," in Aufsatze undAbhandlungen 132-83; here 141.

151bid 143.

16See Alois Riegl, Spatromische Kunstindus- trie (Vienna: ~sterreichische Staatsdruckerei, 1927) esp. 220-30. On Riegl more generally see the two helpful monographs: Margaret Iver- sen,Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1993); Margaret Rose Olin,

Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl's The- ory ofArt (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992). For the art-historical and cultural- historical significance of this thinking, see al- so two recent dissertations: Kevin Michael Parker, "Making Art Historical: Johann Joa- chim Winckelmann, Alois Riegl, Edwin Pan- ofsky," Diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 1993; Diana Graham Reynolds, "Alois Riegl and the Politics of Art History: Intellec- tual Traditions and Austrian Identity in Fin- de-siecle Vienna," Diss., University of Califor- nia, San Diego, 1997.

170tto Stoessl, "Der dichterische Raum," Saturn 2.2 (1912): 29-34, here 30. The title antici- pates the writings of Joseph Frank thirty years later, especially his 1945 essay, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," in The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991) 31-


18A general definition of the artwork would end in a mere abstraction, Lukacs writes, par- ticularly in his attack on naturalism, thus destroying the very work-character of the art- work-its concrete materiality-that lies at the heart of its ontological conditionality. In ad- dition to the locus classicus of his rejection of naturalism and expressionism in his 1938 es- say "Realism in Balance," reprinted in Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980) 28-59, see also his early, phenomenologically more sensitive critique of naturalism in Heidelberger

Philosophie 100-38. IgLukacs, Heidelberger ~sthetik 110. 20Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting

(Chicago: Uof Chicago P, 1987) 32. Subsequent references to this work will be cited parentheti- cally.

21Roland Barthes, On Racine, trans. Richard Howard (NewYork: Octagon Books, 1977) 161. 22See Lukacs, Heidelberger Philosophie 54.

23LukAcs, Heidelberger ~sthetik 101.

24Lukacs, Heidelberger Philosophie 11.

251bid 99.

26Ibid 54.

271bid 26.

28Lukacs, Gelebtes Denken: Eine Autobiogra- phie im Dialog, ed. Istvan Eorsi (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1981) 47.

29F0r classic studies that offer a cross-section of intellectual-cultural developments, see H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation ofEuropean Social Thought 1890-1930(NewYork: Vintage, 1977); and Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage, 1981); see also Hannes Bohringer and Karlfried Grunder,

~sthetik und Soziologie um die Jahrhundert- wende: Georg Simmel (Frankfurt a. M.: Klos- termann, 1976).

30Howard Caygill points out that, in the work of Aquinas, "the work of art [is] the site of a privileged relation of legislation and produc- tion." Howard Caygill, The Art of Judgement.(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 16. For a re- cent discussion of the ontological grounds of the work of art and an enumeration of several important theoretical positions, see Gerard Ge- nette, The Work of Art: Immanence and Tran- scendence,trans. G.M. Goshgarin (Ithaca: Cor- nell UP, 1997).

310n Weber's relations with George, see Edith Weiller, Max Weber und die literarische Mo- derne. Ambiualente Begegnungen zweier Kul- turen (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994) 61-162.

32Cited in Marianne Weber, Max Weber: Ein Lebensbild (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1926) 465-67.

331bid 466.

341bid 466-67.

35Kurt Hildebrandt, Erinnerungen an Stefan George und seinen Kreis (Bonn: H. Bouvier, 1965) 182-83.

36Peter Burger familiarly advances this claim regarding the historical avant-garde's assault on the institutionalization of aesthetic auton- omy-an assault undertaken by the futurists, dadaists, and surrealists-in his Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974). On this inherent paradox in the structures of political potential assigned to the artwork by the avant-garde and the resulting "failure" of its project, see also James S. Ackerman, "The Demise of the Avant Garde: Notes on the Soci- ology of Recent American Art," Comparatiue Studies in Society and History 11(1969): 371- 84; Roland Barthes, "Whose Theater? Whose Avant-Garde," Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972); Christopher Finch, "On the Absence of the Avant-garde," Art International 10.10 (Dec. 1966): 22-23; Thomas W. Gaethgens, "Wo ist die Avantgarde?" Kunstchronik 30 (1977): 472- 95; Robert Hughes, "The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde," Idea Art, ed. Gregory Batt- cock (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973) 184-94; Judith Russi Kirschner, "The Possibility of an Avant-garde," Formations 2.2 (1985): 81-103; George T. Noszlopy, "The Embourgoisement of Avant-garde Art," Diogenes 67 (1969): 94-

95. 37Weiller 298. 38In his Theorie des kommunikatiuen Han-

delns, Habermas argues that, despite the colo- nizing impulses of systemic rationality, it is also indispensable for the regulation of econo- mies and bureaucratic apparatuses whose infi- nite complexity could not be managed by the discrete operations of communicative interac- tion (Theorie des kommunikatiuen Handelns, vol. 2 [Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 19871). See also his Faktizitat und Geltung: Beitrage zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokrati- schen Rechtsstaats (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1992) for the implications for democratic in- stitututions.

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