Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Marcuse's great late essay "The Aesthetic Dimension" still impresses me as the most dramatic confrontation I've yet encountered between a rigorous Marxist-influenced theoretician and the profound power of the artistic imagination. Marcuse argues, contra the ideologues of social realism, that even art without explicitly 'social' themes (even especially such art) can produce in viewers/readers "a counter-consciousness: negation of the realistic-conformist mind." Provocatively, Marcuse argues that this is more likely to occur in non-social realist works, works whose subject matter is divorced from social realities. This is because those realities have become sublimated in the work, and contact with the work brings about a corresponding desublimation in the viewer, ''an invalidation of dominant norms, needs, and values." "The truth of art," Marcuse writes, "lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e., of those who established it) to define what is real." These are powerful ideas and arguments for the political potential of aesthetic experience, even of 'art for art's sake', an argument for the revolutionary political potential even of fin de siecle aestheticism. Ultimately, I think, the essay is a passionate Marxist plea for the beautiful, a brief for the efficacy of imagination.

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