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abet experiences of temporal integration or evolution, nor does it make much sense
to speak of experiential closure with respect to them.
Likewise, the requirement that aesthetic experiences be qualitatively unified
seems too narrow. Dewey thinks that with regard to encounters with artworks
something like a qualitative feeling tone emerges that selectively governs our
sense of what belongs and what doesn™t in our experience, thereby setting up an
internal boundary between aesthetic experiences and surrounding circumstances.
But, of course, many modern artworks, like John Cage™s 4′33′′, are designed to
subvert the kinds of aesthetic experiences Dewey regards as the norm. By mobi-
lizing chance techniques, Cage renders unlikely the operation of any principle of
selection of the sort that would impart a feeling of qualitative unity to an experi-
ence of a performance of 4′33′′. Moreover, 4′33′′ does just end; it does not con-
summate. Instead of erecting a boundary between that experience and the
experiential surround, Cage blurs it. He fosters an experience of dispersion, arbi-
trary juxtaposition, and openness rather than that of a bounded unity, thereby
defamiliarizing the quotidian so that it can be heard afresh.
Similarly, many of Robert Morris™s installations make the experience of disar-
ray their subject, while Antonioni™s films of the early sixties portray scarcely sto-
ried events in order to place the loose-endedness of lives lived under the
cinematic microscope. But if experiences of quotidian dispersion, openness, disar-
ray, arbitrariness, loose-endedness, of endings without consummation, and so on
can all be aesthetic experiences, designed to blur the distinction between Dewey™s
capital letter E Experiences and the more desultory and disconnected sorts of
daily experience, then the pragmatic account of aesthetic experience, no matter
how influential on twentieth-century educational theory, must be abandoned.

T H E A L L E G O R I C A L AC C O U N T

Though perhaps never stated with the utmost clarity and explicitness in the writ-
ings of Critical Theorists, the allegorical account of aesthetic experience of art is
strongly suggested by the later works of Herbert Marcuse and T. W. Adorno. In
52 BEYOND AESTHETICS

order to get the gist of this position on aesthetic experience, let me begin with
some quotations from Marcuse. He writes:
Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension
in which human beings, nature, and other things no longer stand under the
law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the
appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The
encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and
images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no
longer, or not yet, perceived, said and heard in everyday life.8
Because genuine artworks are autonomous in the sense that they afford disin-
terested experiences, they provide us with a sense that society could be different,
that it could be ruled by different principles. Of Mallarm©™s poety, Marcuse writes:
“his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures “ a feast of sen-
suousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality
principle.”9 In this regard, the aesthetic experience of genuine artworks is utopian
“ it provides a taste of qualities of experience typically not available in capitalist
and totalitarian societies, dominated as they are by exchange value and instrumen-
tal reason, the profit motive and the performance principle.
That is why Marcuse claims of fiction that “the encounter with the fictitious
world restructures consciousness and gives sensual representation to a counter-
social experience.”10 By being unreal, in other words, fiction awakens experience
to the possibility that things could be otherwise “ experience in general could be
more like what is now often only found in aesthetic experience, an opportunity
to allow imagination and sensibility free rein. In this way, aesthetic experience
looks forward to a time when “imagination, sensibility and reason will be emanci-
pated from the rule of exploitation.”11 Aesthetic experience, in short, functions as
a beacon, encouraging us to realize a new social order where our species-being, in
terms of our powers of imagination and sensibility, can flourish.
Genuine art has a utopian side, inasmuch as the aesthetic experience that it
affords sustains faith in the possibility of a different social order, one where imag-
ination and sensibility rather than instrumental reason and the performance prin-
ciple preside.12 At the same time, by being different from the social order that
exists, art, through the agency of aesthetic experience, implicitly criticizes what is.
It negates the existing social order by drawing a revealing contrast between every-
day experience under the present dispensation and the creativity and imaginative-
ness available through aesthetic experiences of genuine works of art.Art, in virtue
of aesthetic experience, is revolutionary “ it negates the modalities of existing
social reality: at once holding out the promise of the possibility of a utopian alter-
native, while also accusing, indicting, and criticizing what we have instead.
In order to understand what Marcuse is trying to do here, it is helpful to recall
that he is attempting to find a political significance for art and aesthetic experi-
ence that does not tie them to the propaganda function of art.That is, he wishes
to argue that art can be politically emancipatory, irrespective of its overt political
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 53
OF


content, rhetoric, and purpose. He wants to argue, for example, that Mallarm© can
be regarded as revolutionary from a Marxist point of view. In this respect, Mar-
cuse™s project is not so different from the one that Kant undertook in his Critique
of Judgment where he was at pains to show the moral significance of art apart from
and even despite its lack of moralizing content. To a comparable end, Marcuse
focuses on aesthetic experience, taking it to symbolize experientially the possibil-
ity of a more humanly fulfilled way of life, while, at the same time, it also implic-
itly functions to criticize our present form of social existence.
Though Adorno™s theory, which Marcuse acknowledges as an immense influ-
ence, is far more complicated, and less sanguine, than Marcuse™s, it also emphasizes
the potential of the aesthetic experience of art to be a demystifying agency.
Adorno says:
What is social about art is not its political stance, but its immanent
dynamic in opposition to society. Its historical posture repulses empirical
reality, the fact that works of art qua things are part of that reality notwith-
standing. If any social function can be ascribed to art at all, it is the func-
tion to have no function. By being different from ungodly reality, art
negatively embodies an order of things in which empirical reality would
have its rightful place.The mystery of art is its demystifying power.13
That is, because the work of art is autonomous or lacking any other function
than that of producing aesthetic experience (which itself is free of any instru-
mental, practical, and, therefore, social interest), art may serve as an occasion for
a demystifying, negating experience of existing social reality “ an experience
embracing both social promise and social criticism. Adorno, of course, as well
as being far less conventional than Marcuse with respect to his aesthetic taste, is
also dramatically less hopeful than Marcuse about the prospects for art to tran-
scend altogether the social circumstances from which it emerges, though nev-
ertheless he would still appear to grant aesthetic experience the same kinds of
powers of negation Marcuse does, even if he is far more emphatic about the
limitations of their efficacy.
Because their language is so different, it may not be obvious that there is an
important correspondence between the traditional account of aesthetic experi-
ence and the allegorical account. Nevertheless, both accounts share a central
premise in regarding aesthetic experience as disinterested “ that is, not a matter of
the pursuit of any practical, instrumental, moral, or, broadly social value.14 It is
because artworks are said to promote this sort of disinterested experience that
Marcuse and Adorno regard genuine artworks to be autonomous or, at least, in
Adorno™s case, headed in the direction of autonomy.That is, the autonomy of art
is constituted by its capacity to promote aesthetic experience. Or, to say it differ-
ently, the key to understanding the notion that art is autonomous is the presuppo-
sition that it specializes in the promotion of disinterested experiences, since such
experiences are said, by definition, to be aimed at something valuable for its own
sake, rather than in the service of social and instrumental interests.
54 BEYOND AESTHETICS

Of course, the reason that both the traditional account and the allegorical
account of aesthetic experience converge on this commitment to disinterested-
ness is primarily a shared heritage, notably the writings of Kant. However, the alle-
gorical account relies far more heavily on Kantian aesthetics than does the
traditional account.
For Kant, an aesthetic experience of the relevant sort “ an experience of free
beauty “ is, in part, a subjective, disinterested feeling of pleasure that results from
the free play of the imagination and understanding in response to forms of pur-
posiveness. Unpacking this formula, we can say: such experiences are subjective,
because they obtain inside the percipient.They are disinterested because they are
valued for their own sake. And, the pleasure they provoke is a function of the
imagination and the understanding in free play.
That is, the imagination and the understanding are active in aesthetic experi-
ence, but not in the way they are standardly deployed in theoretical and practical
reason. Instead of being involved in subsuming particulars under determinate
concepts and purposes, as in the manner of instrumental reason, during aesthetic
experience, the imagination and understanding are exploratory; they are free to
examine particulars without the pressure to classify them under a general concept
or purpose. In a typical aesthetic experience, of which contemplating a metaphor
may be one, the imagination probes the particular for its possible meanings, con-
structing alternatives, and is open to diverse and vagrant sensations rather than
attempting to corral the experience under a single determinate concept, including
the sort that would be useful or serve a purpose.
The object of aesthetic experience presents us with the form of purposiveness
“ that is, it looks to be the product of intentional activity “ but we don™t examine
it in terms of the purpose it does or might serve. Instead, we absorb it imagina-
tively and openendedly.We savor the colors in the painting of a tree for their rich-
ness and variety rather than using them to tell ourselves what kind of tree it is.We
imaginatively explore the multiple, metaphorical, shifting meanings that a heraldic
emblem might have, rather than simply, practically regarding it as the insignia of a
certain family or clan.
There are two different, discriminable, though relatable, kinds of freedom here
folded into the Kantian aesthetic experience.There is the freedom the experience
sustains insofar as it is disinterested “ valuable intrinsically and, therefore, divorced,
that is to say “free from,” any other sort of interest: practical, moral, financial, polit-
ical, and so on. But the experience is also free in the sense that during it the imag-
ination and understanding are free from the governance of concepts. The
imagination and understanding explore particulars in their richness without the
compulsion to subsume them under concepts. Moreover, this concept-freedom of
the imagination may relate back to the disinterested freedom of the experience
both positively and negatively. Positively because this imaginative exploration is
self-rewarding and negatively because the subsumption of particulars under con-
cepts generally serves practical purposes.Thus, where the imagination eludes con-
ceptualization, in the same stroke, it functions outside a network of purposes.
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 55
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These two freedoms are especially crucial for the allegorical account of aes-
thetic experience. On the one hand, it is the notion of disinterestedness that
encourages proponents to identify the experiences afforded by genuine art with
an indictment of market value and the utopian promise of more humane value,
since aesthetic experience itself is putatively, in principle, independent from any
sort of exchange value. So to engage aesthetic experience through artworks then
is to find oneself necessarily outside the reach of exchange value.
On the other hand, the freedom of the imagination from concepts when
immersed in aesthetic experience is also implicitly utopian and accusatory,
since subsuming particulars under concepts is the hallmark of instrumental rea-
son. Thus, insofar as the operation of the imagination in aesthetic experience
amounts to a form of cognition free from the subsumption of particulars under
concepts, aesthetic experience represents a cognitive free zone outside the
processes of instrumental reason. For Adorno, it represents a kind of cognition
or rationality outside the perimeter of the sort of the instrumental rationality
that dominates capitalist and totalitarian societies, thereby holding forth an
alternative kind of reason, whose possibility also indicts instrumental rational-
ity. Moreover, to the degree that imaginative cognition without concepts
emphasizes the experience of particularity, it resists the totalizing demands of
existing forms of existing social reality.
The allegorical account of aesthetic experience also reflects certain tendencies
in the self-conception of modernist art. Accosted somewhere in the nineteenth
century by rude commercial ambitions bent on reducing all value to utilitarian or
economic value, some modernist artists began to represent themselves as trying to
set up a firebreak “ called art for art™s sake “ in order to sustain an autonomous
realm of value independent of the dollar sign.That is, in the context of earlier cul-
ture wars, the putative autonomy of art was mobilized by many modernist artists
historically as a sign of resistance to the perceived threat of the reduction of all
value to market or instrumental value through bourgeois contagion.
The allegorical account of aesthetic experience provides a philosophical
grounding for this modernist tendency, explaining ostensibly how art can secure
autonomy because of its capacity to engender aesthetic experiences that are disin-
terested and impractically valuable as well as, in principle, free from the protocols
of instrumental reason.That is, the allegorical account provides a theoretical ratio-
nale for the modernist™s conviction that art can defend the possibility of value
beyond instrumental value, of which market value is a particularly pronounced
and threatening example.
I have called this account allegorical. Perhaps now we have reached a point
where I can explain my choice of nomenclature. In order to limn the significance
of aesthetic experience, proponents of this approach embed aesthetic experience
in a larger dramatic conflict in which aesthetic experience figures as the protago-
nist and instrumental reason and market rationality as the antagonists.The putative
mental state of disinterested valuing and the capacity to imagine and reflect sans
the guidance of concepts are opposed to instrumental reasoning and market
56 BEYOND AESTHETICS

rationality not only in the sense of being different, but also in the sense of some-
how being rivals or competitors.
In the Kantian system, aesthetic experience or aesthetic judgment occupies a
niche in a static architectonic schema. What the allegorical account does is to
dynamize that schema, thematizing the parts and turning it into a story. In addi-
tion, the allegorical account, then, also appears to historicize the story, associating
certain aspects of reason with the marketplace and totalitarianism, on the one
hand, and drafting aesthetic experience and the imagination as a significant, if ulti-
mately doomed, antidote to the encroachment of the sort of rationalization Max
Weber identified with modernity.The allegorical account treats aesthetic experi-
ence as a counter against instrumental reason, narrativizing mental processes in an
agonistic struggle, one made more poignant by being superimposed onto disturb-
ing social tendencies, especially ones relevant to modern capitalism.
In some of the most obscure passages of Kant™s Critique of Judgment, Kant conjec-
tures that the aesthetic experience of nature is the symbol of morality “ by which he
means that it is a metaphor for morality that enables humans to grasp the idea intu-
itively or experientially. My suspicion is that the allegorical account of aesthetic expe-
rience is in the same ballpark. It is an attempt to locate the significance or symbolic
import of aesthetic experience, notably for the age of instrumental reason.Thus, the
account is allegorical because it takes a certain conception of aesthetic experience,
derived from Kant, and attempts to make it a metaphor or symbol for something else
“ the affirmation of autonomy, criticism of the status quo, and so on.
However, for the metaphor to work, aesthetic experience needs to have just
the features attributed to it. It would have to be necessarily disinterested and it also
would have to deploy the imagination without dependence on determinate con-
cepts. If not, the allegory would not work on its own terms. Moreover, despite the
authority of Kant, we have already seen in our discussion of the traditional
account of aesthetic experience that the supposition that aesthetic experience is
necessarily disinterested is dubious. Is the conjecture that in aesthetic experience
the imagination functions without the direction of determinate concepts any bet-
ter off? For if it is not, the putative rivalry between aesthetic experience and
instrumental reason is undermined.
If what we are talking about is the aesthetic experience of artworks, as
opposed to natural vistas, it is difficult to credit the idea that concepts play no role
in aesthetic contemplation.With respect to artworks, very frequently, if not most
frequently, a decisive portion of our cognitive activity is spent placing the artwork
in its correct category or genre, which, in turn, gives us a sense of its likely pur-
poses, which, then, enables us to appreciate the suitability of its formal articula-
tion. Part of what it is to experience Oedipus Rex aesthetically involves identifying
it as an example of the category of tragedy and using what one knows about the
purposes of that genre in order to isolate and size up its structural modifications.
This is not to say that every artwork falls neatly into one category. Some
straddle or synthesize categories; some amplify already existing categories in inno-
vative directions; some may even repudiate familiar categories, erecting, in effect,
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 57
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countercategories. But in responding to even these examples, categorical thinking
plays a major role in much, perhaps even most, aesthetic experiences of artworks.
Yet if categorical thinking is not an alien part of aesthetic experience, then how

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