Luc Ferry – Homo Aestheticus (1990)

Baltasar Graican, in the mid-seventeenth century, was the “first” person to use “taste” in a metaphoric sense to refer to the act of aesthetic judgment. It is a faculty able to distinguish between the beautiful and ugly (14). Modern aesthetic is born the moment that art is no longer about objective properties in the real world, but about our subjective relationship to those objects (19). Indeed, one could think about taste, its radical subjectivity and relative incommunicability, as the subjective correlate to the objective condition of the a-rationality of the aesthetic (22). The question of taste, then, becomes the reverse of most other contemporary philosophy: rather than devoting energy to showing how there are no absolute truths, the aesthetic is the realm in which one goes about trying to establish such objectivity on subjectivity, transcendence on immanence (25). It stands in radical distinction from history—in fact, the aesthetic only becomes regarded as such when it is able to break from history and tradition all together. Ferry’s “history” of aesthetics—a history that sets out to solve these problems—converges, as he very readily admits, with the history of subjectivity as such. It makes the book very useful both as an historical index—linking aesthetic development to the history ideas—and as an object of critique—he drinks the kool-aids served up by philosophers that wrench taste out of its corporeal nexus (and is even blind to those philosophers, like Nietzsche, that do the opposite). Nevertheless, the book progresses in five stages.
1. The prehistory of aesthetics—a debate between Descartes and Pascal over where the subject resides (thinking vs sensing) is correlated with whether the aesthetic is supposed to “paint the world” or provide delicacy and sentiment over and against such a world. But the terrain of the debate is the subject, the individual, as a monad, from whose world the divine has withdrawn. This is the pre-condition for the aesthetic.

2. Kant grants beauty more independence: it is allowed to exist in itself and not merely as a representation of the Good. With the withdraw of God, aesthetic is used to theorize a sensus communis. Further, the artist no longer “discovers,” but invents.

3. Hegel gets short shrift. He turns the artwork into the sensuous appearance of the divine (reversion to pre-Kantain aesthetic) and transforms the aesthetic in general into a philosophical pre-condition. Poetry turns into prose, etc. This is a reductive reading of Hegel.

4. Nietzsche contradicts Hegel by fusing the first two moments into one. He affirms the human viewpoint over the divine even while admitting that it is irrevocably flawed, fragmented. However, the real itself is fragmented, so art, and our relationship to it, has a truth revealing function after all.

5. The last stage take Nietzsche as the prophet of the avant-gardes. There is a double-movement: on the one hand toward hyperrelativism and on the other toward hyperrealism. But this is ending, and aesthetics of the 21st century are moving towards revival, cohesion, traditional narratives, etc. This final point reveals Ferry’s tendentious account, reducing both Modernist and contemporary art to clichés. Neverthless, a great book packed with good info, etc.

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