PRINT December 1984


German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism , Aesthetic Theory, and And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

THIS WORK OFFERS MAJOR critical texts by Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Karl Solger, Jean Paul Richter, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and of course Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Kathleen Wheeler also provides an admirably straightforward explication of the ideas and issues that engaged these romantic thinkers and literati, and a strong reminder that their work anticipated many contemporary interests, from the role of language to that of irony in art. Much of the material here has been previously unavailable in English; two more anthologies covering additional materials from the same period are still to come. The anthology is extremely useful for understanding the presuppositions and expectations of contemporary neoromantic artists, non-German as well well as German. It reminds us of how pervasive German romantic ideas are in contemporary thinking about art.

What may be most extraordinary about these writers, from our jaded viewpoint, is the great expectations they have from art, and the irony with which they acknowledge them. Our expectations are neither so yearning, nor is our despair so self-conscious and analytic. “We look everywhere for the Unconditional Absolute,” writes Novalis, “and all we find are the conditions.” From education in general and art in particular he expects “to seize the mastery of one’s transcendental Self—to be at the same time the Self of one’s Self.” Today we believe that neither education nor art necessarily give us empathy for ourselves, and this, I think, goes a long way toward explaining to us the death obsession in Novalis’ thought, and the general romantic belief that “everything visible cleaves to the Invisible—the Audible to the Inaudible—the Palpable to the Impalpable. Perhaps the Thinkable to the Unthinkable—.” As Goethe said, “Art: a different kind of nature, mysterious too, but more intelligible”; today, we neither believe in the mystery of art nor see it as a superior mode of intelligibility. Our sense of the superior character and mystery of art has been sharply reduced, corrupted by its commodification and our implicit belief that it is completely reducible to a finite number of highly specific codes. Of course, we do have our sense of endless experimentation in form, and of art’s profound materiality. Ironically, such pragmatism seems the dregs of romanticism. We clearly have the art we deserve, while the romantics never quite thought they did.

German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe, ed. Kathleen Wheeler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 268 pp.


AESTHETIC THEORY IS NOT ONLY as major an analysis of art as Minima Moralia is of society, but the greatest work on esthetics since those of the German romantic theorists, with which it can be affiliated. Adorno’s premise is that “art’s essence is twofold: on the one hand, it dissociates itself from empirical reality and from the functional complex that is society; and on the other, it belongs to that reality and to that social complex. This comes out directly in the particular aesthetic phenomena which are always simultaneously aesthetic and faits sociaux.” His analyses treat the relationship of art with society, technology, and metaphysics; the distinction between artistic and natural beauty; the utopianism inherent in artmaking; and the interplay of illusion and expression. The book is rich with examples from traditional and modern art (it was intended to be dedicated to Samuel Beckett), and cross-examines its own assumptions in such sections as “the insecurity of esthetics.” It is essentially an account of esthetic experience on the model of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (a model shared by Minima Moralia),while it also brings the irony of the Marxist materialist to bear. The book is incomplete; it is a series of peculiarly cohering fragments which do not have quite the same aphoristic immediacy as those of Minima Moralia, but nonetheless reveal the structure of contradiction that constitutes the tension called art. For Adorno the most significant artworks have the “complete incompleteness” of the fragment, which is the only authentic kind of wholeness. He treats every traditional theme of esthetics and art as a sublime fragment of an unresolved discourse about experience, as though the character of our relationship to art were the major clue for understanding our relationship to the world.

Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 526 pp.


THIS BOOK INTERSPERSES POETRY and prose in a discontinuous “narrative,” in effect a series of ruminations about life, love, art, and nature. It is as though a toothless Berger were chewing a cud of consciousness with his gums, spitting little gobs of truth in our face. His tone of “getting down to basics” I find irritating and ingratiating, simplistic, almost preachy. Berger’s treatment of Caravaggio is intellectually perfunctory, reiterating platitudes as though they were newly discovered truths: “He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio.” “His chiaroscuro allowed him to abandon daylight.” “Almost every act of touching which Caravaggio painted has a sexual charge.” This may be an improvement over Frank Stella’s formalist falsification of Caravaggio, but it’s not much of one.

I can’t wait for the new commissars of consciousness to simplify everything. Surely they’ll leave one dialectical slum for misfits to hide in. The old Communism and Marxism were intellectually astute and socially controversial, for a while at least, but back-to-the-earth communalism is pretentiously simplistic, and Berger has adapted to it all too well. He has found happiness at last; he’s almost ready to give up his negativity, which was once productively unmanageable. (Today soi-disant radicalism reeks of managed negativity.) I don’t want to live in the Gulag archipelago of happy thoughts Berger is setting up. Though his ruminations have more of the trappings of “creativity” than Theodor Adorno’s aphoristic analyses, they also have more of a retarded look, for they show creative intellect become sentimental. Berger’s mind must be enjoying a second childhood, so filled is it with an adolescent idea of seriousness.

John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos (New York: Pantheon Books), 103 pp.


Donald Kuspit contributes regularly to Artforum.