Aesthetics & Alienation
What is the role of the aesthetic state apparatus?

A complete and original theory of aesthetics based on Marx and Althusser in the modernist Marxist tradition (Brecht, Althusser, Benjamin, Adorno). The main concepts that arise from this work are: the aesthetic level of practice, aesthetic state apparatuses, aesthetic interpellation, and pseudo dialectics, all of which are used to understand the role of aesthetic experience and its place in everyday life.
This book looks at feelings, affections, dispositions, sensibilities and sensuality, and their social role in art, tradition, ritual, and taboo. With the classic Marxist concepts of base and superstructure divided into economic, ideological, and political levels, the aesthetic level of practice is the area that has traditionally been missing or misrepresented for political reasons. This aesthetic level of practice fuels and supports the media, or as Althusser described it the traffic between base and superstructure. From this vantage point, the aesthetic state apparatuses can be analysed both in the past, for example in art history, and today, in contemporary politics. What role do art, feelings and alienation play in our culture?
  • Review of "Aesthetics & Alienation" by Gary Tedman

    We artists, writers, art historians, architects, graphic designers, everyone in the arts, ask the same questions. Why do we do it? And what does it mean? All of the above who take their work seriously know what I am talking about by saying that art very quickly becomes a branch of epistemology. The philosophy of art that ultimately underpins art and has for many centuries been assimilated into mainstream thought by a category called aesthetics. Up until now aesthetics has remained relatively unchallenged as a sub-set of Cartesian and Kantian philosophy of the transcendental, the spiritual and the godly. As a result even in the 21st century art is still magical, heavenly, cannot be explained and hardly referred to in any responsible sense.

    With Marx, philosophy was tumbled upside-down, overturning the idealism of Descartes, Kant and Hegel with his genius proposition: that philosophy does not exist separately but is relative to material conditions, it is the mental accumulation of practical life. Via this, a brand new materialist facet has entered many disciplines: history, linguistics, social studies, natural science and physics. Nevertheless the coordinates maintained on this grid by art have never yet been precisely located. Most art theory remains fuddled, confused and, frankly, gossipy.

    Aesthetics and Alienation seems to me to solve so much of this, with four major submissions.

    The first is that the term aesthetics is understood in its original sense: that it is a heightening of the senses. This is in opposition to anesthetics, which is understood simply as a deadening of the senses. Once denoted in this way aesthetics is immediately torn from its idealist rhetorical base to become part of physical and mental bodily well-being, as a heightening of the senses and mind. The emotions, sensuality, desires, fear, dreams and nightmares that art and aesthetics beget are immediately traceable to the body and not the gods.

    Then the author takes Louis Althusser's famous concept of Ideological State Apparatuses. While fundamentally in agreement, Gary Tedman finds the emphasis on ideology a little too sided with ideas than a Marxist and/or materialist should be, and so once again introduces the concept of bodily feeling, sensuality and aesthetics to Althusser. He locates the concept of an aesthetic level in some of Althusser's later texts, purporting that the notion is in fact present but suppressed in Althusser's work and in the interpretation thereof, by the intervention of Lacanian theory and Lacan's revision of Freud's materialist epistemology, which Tedman sees as an idealist Kantian-like reassertion. The upshot of this is the formation of a concept of aesthetic state apparatuses as institutions such as art colleges and university departments devoted to art and design (among other aesthetic apparatuses of a similar nature such as the family and the hospital) which are involved in the reproduction of the human subject on the aesthetic level: thus determining the subject's emotional disposition.

    Tedman then imports the significance of the text that contains many of the young Marx's seminal ideas, the 1844 Manuscripts, ideas put forward in this work not only in the words of Marx but by the unique formal manner in which he expressed them; as the author demonstrates by some remarkable detective work and following up on research by Margaret Fay, Marx designed, cut and bound the original manuscript, which was unpublished in his lifetime. Marx wrote the whole thing in multiple columns on large landscape sheets of paper and sewed them together to form a spatially topological object precisely married to the concepts expressed therein, and so emphasizing their physical projection. This is likened to a modernist work of art with form and function united. In short, Tedman regards these aspects to be aesthetic design qualities that have been misinterpreted, again, towards a transcendental interpretation, specifically targeted to Marx's fundamental concept of alienation to make it a spiritual rather than an affective relation. From this section he draws out the concepts of the sublimation of alienation and affective practices.

    The up shot is a merging of all of the above together with Freud's conception of the drives, sexuality, emotion and libido to form a space called the aesthetic level of practice where everything happens in society not necessarily because people are told what to do (ideological persuasion) and not because they are fulfilling a sense of responsibility, but because at some point rational and moral components break down and the sense-energy of the libido must kick in to sustain it. The forces that drive society are shown to require a turbine struck into the deepest chasm of human energy to keep the whole thing turning. The aesthetic level maps this out as the politics of feeling, sexuality, aesthetic preferences and culture: manifest in art, architecture, design, cinema and popular music, all in relation to the material conditions of their construction (Althusser/Marx).

    Further sections deal with the astonishing ramifications of this thesis, particularly for Marxism, detailing the consolidating role of art in post revolutionary France, the art of the Soviet avant-garde, the roots of the aesthetic in Ancient Greek philosophy (specifically the philosophy of paradox/contradiction and Zeno), and then the aesthetic in relation to modern education and pedagogy, all of which have the concept applied to them while gathering evidence for its efficacy along the way. From this section concepts such as aesthetic interpellation are introduced, and this successfully tackles some hitherto profound difficulties in Marxist theory which Althusser had broached (Essays in Self-Criticism), such as the attitude towards the cult of personality and the phenomenon of Stalinism, each of which finds new meaning by being freshly considered from the point of view of the aesthetic level, forging it as a necessary dimension that until now has been lacking.

    Aesthetics & Alienation is a work that has the potential to rid us of the inadvertently haughty and vacuous nature of dominant art theory which by default lends art to the transcendental aesthetic, and yields further consequences and reactions such as dismissing art as 'snobby' and without significance or as existing only within ideology. This holds repercussions for everyone, but especially for the left and progressives and some (perhaps many?) existent and past socialist governments who, according to Tedman, failed to adequately understand art (due to a lack of a proper theory), and have suffered economically, politically and ideologically as a consequence. The chief example he gives is the Soviet Union’s eventual dismissal of avant-garde art as opposed (somewhat ironically and in a kind of dialectical twist of fate) to the promotion in the USA of modern abstract art by the Federal Arts Project. The profound long term propaganda and ideological affects of such events are finally being brought to light and understood via Tedman's project. Aesthetics are explained here as that which artists and designers instinctively always knew, that art accesses everyone, that its influence is inescapable, but in its permeation through the social levels it need not be seen as just a useful tool for mass propaganda or 'merely' as an adjunct to design but as immanent critique, of the relationship between society and the human subject and this calls for us to distinguish a kind of sober 'laboratory function' for art practices.

    by Iona Singh ~ Gnawing Criticism of the Mice/Art Review Featured Blog