Breaking Out of the White Cube

From Suzi Gablik's Conversations before the end of time, London: Thames and Hudson 1995, pp. 247-65.

Suzi Gablik interviewing Richard Shusterman


To pass beyond the modern framework, it seems as if we must be willing to surrender the ideology of aesthetic autonomy--the compartmental conception of fine art that segregates it to the separate realm of the museum. Art, life and popular culture have all suffered from these entrenched divisions and from the consequently narrow identification of art with elitist fine art. There is a fundamental passivity that underlies our established appreciation of high art, which is heightened by the traditional aesthetic attitude of disinterested, distanced contemplation, and which discourages communal interaction or deeply embodied participatory involvement. In any social function can be ascribed to autonomous art at all, it is the function to have no function. The aesthetic attitude implies a break with the world and the concerns of ordinary life; its premise is that art and real life are, and should be, strictly separated. There is, however, no compelling reason at this point to accept the narrow aesthetic limits imposed by the established ideology of autonomous art, an ideology that is no longer profitable, or even creditable. The emancipatory enlargement of the aesthetic involves reconceiving art in more liberal terms, freeing it from its exalted cloister, where it is isolated from life and differentiated from more popular forms of cultural expression.

Imagine my surprise at finding in the mail one morning a book whose bristling, provocative contents can be summed up roughly by the philosophy delineated above. Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art argues from start to finish for an aesthetic of vigorously active and communally impassioned engagement, and for art that is neither purposeless nor disinterested. Written by Richard Shusterman, an associate professor of philosophy at Temple University, the book was sent to me by the organizer of a symposium at Swarthmore College, at which the author and I were both invited to speak. The topic, inspired by the title of Paul Gauguin's famous painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, is a subject very much on people's minds today. Of course I was delighted and intrigued to discover a fellow-traveler, someone else who was challenging "the frame" by asking uncomfortable questions about the privileging of isolated and independent objects over process-oriented models, and who believed philosophy should not restrict itself to abstract arguments, but should actively engage in reshaping our aesthetic concepts and theories so they can serve us better. Shusterman definitely feels that we need to infuse our criticism of art with a wider awareness of its social role.

Shusterman expounds on how we can enlarge our conception of the aesthetic by embracing the practical, the social and the political, an aesthetic that builds on that of his intellectual mentor, John Dewey, who was one of pragmatism's founding fathers. Art should be richer, Dewey thought, and more satisfying to people, if it was integrated into their lives rather than being set "upon a far-off pedestal." Like Dewey, Shusterman claims that the compartmentalizing of art in museums has impoverished the aesthetic quality of our lives, a theme already introduced by Satish Kumar and reflected on by James Hillman. Dewey went much farther than merely advocating the integration of art and life; he proposed that the rift between the practical and the aesthetic was a historic catastrophe that has produced ''specimens of fine art and nothing else." According to Shusterman, art objects are aimed for sale in the market like other commodities in capitalist society, thus depriving art of its intimate social connection. Shusterman writes: "It is perhaps Dewey's most important aesthetic theme: the privileging of dynamic aesthetic experience over the fixed material object which our conventional thinking identifies--and then commodifies and fetishizes--as the work of art. " For Dewey, as well as for Shusterman, the essence and value of art are not in the mere artifacts we typically regard as art, but in the dynamic and developing experiential activity through which they are created and perceived. The point is not a rejection of discrete, static objects, as Shusterman says, nor to close or destroy art's museums, but rather to expand them, and to show that aesthetic experience clearly exceeds the limits of fine art and its objects. "My defense of the aesthetic legitimacy of popular art and my account of ethics as an art of living, " he states, "both aim at a more expansive and democratic reconception of art. "

An attractive man with an incisive, sophisticated intelligence, Shusterman seemed eager to talk with me about his ideas, which are in many ways analogous to my own. The following conversation was taped on April 16, 1993, at seven o'clock in the morning at Ashton House on the Swarthmore campus. We were both gulping down cups of tea before I rushed off in a taxi to the airport.

SUZI GABLIK: One of the running themes that has emerged from these conversations, Richard, is the notion that in other cultures, art has never been restricted to pictures on the wall, but has always been something much more integrated with life. When I read your book Pragmatist Aesthetics, I was struck by how much your views frequently go counter to a lot of current aesthetic ideology which asserts that art and real life are, and should be kept, separate. You pose a challenge to the aesthetic attitude that demands a break with the world and with the concerns of ordinary life and ordinary people--an idea you claim is no longer useful. Do you want to expound on this a bit more?

RICHARD SHUSTERMAN: Art's Separation from life and the aesthetic attitude's break with the world and practical concerns are closely related, but I think it's important to distinguish them historically. Because there was art a long time before there was the aesthetic attitude. Throughout the ancient world and well into the Renaissance, we had art without an explicitly aesthetic attitude, art having the dual purpose of enjoyment and instruction, or dolce and utile, as Horace described it. The aesthetic attitude, like the term "aesthetic," is the product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's only in more modern times that we start to have this greater differentiation of cultural spheres and greater specialization. Art becomes defined by the aesthetic attitude--that is, by the idea of a disinterested, distanced, formal contemplation of the world and of the art work. But the point here is a hidden elitism: only certain people can take that disinterested, formal perspective, and they are people whose practical world is already well taken care of. Their well-being is secure, so they are free to devote leisure time and energy to the more demanding pleasures of pure form. Someone who can look at a landscape in a disinterested and disembodied way in terms of its formal properties alone, and in terms of its sensual and emotional satisfactions, rather than in terms of what it means for one's life practically, is someone who doesn't have to worry about her needs and who can demonstrate greatintellectual control. Thus, for all its purity, the aesthetic attitude implies a sort of social and intellectual distinction, and even serves as a marker of such distinction.

SG: In a previous conversation with Carolyn Merchant, who is a philosopher and historian of science, she talked about the evolution of the disembodied eye in science, which emerged along with the mechanization of the world picture around the same time that you're talking about. At that point, man began to chart and map, to schematize the world, and in a sense, his role was reduced to that of the eye which surveys, and which surveys at a distance. This disembodied, objectifying eye became the essence of the scientific attitude and, in a sense, of the aesthetic attitude as well. In your book, you talk about how the aesthetic attitude privileges product over process, and results in the "museum conception of art" that defines art exclusively in terms of autonomous objects, masterpieces quarantined to the separate realm of the museum. This pure aesthetic realm of distanced contemplation is intended to imply a break with the real world and its problems.

RS: I think that's largely true, but I'd like to make some qualifications. We must remember that the idea of objectifying art precedes the modern scientific revolution. It goes back as far as Aristotle--that is, the idea of thinking of art as external making, as the making of an object, rather than the performing and experiencing of an action or a process. The reasons for this externalizing objectification are, I think, very deep and very interesting. As I said last night, art was defined by philosophers in order to establish philosophy's superiority. Art can be incredibly potent, and Plato recognized this, which is why he wanted to ban the artist from the Republic. He saw art as some kind of divine possession or madness, which, even if it was divine, wasn't rational and therefore had to be feared. Aristotle also tried to reconceive art in a way that would tame its magical, experiential power by construing it as some kind of skill in making external objects. So Aristotle defined art as poesis, i.e., making, which he distinguished sharply from praxis, or doing. Thus, he was able to detach art effectively from the realm of action and ethics. In other words, for Aristotle, what you do affects who you are: the purpose of a virtuous act is connected with the kind of person that you are, which is expressed in doing that act. With art, on the other hand, conceived merely as the making of an object, the end is that external object itself. So it really doesn't matter who you are as a person; what you're doing is producing an object through a special skill but not through your essential character. This distinction between making and doing allows us to think of art as the production of objects that are altogether separate from who we ethically are and how we act. Aristotelian aestheticians, like Jacques Maritain, insist explicitly on this difference; it means that you can be a great artist and a horrible person. And certainly, this idea of art's separation from character and praxis has become a commonplace in our own aesthetic understanding. There is also the corollary idea that since what you make is purely external to you, it doesn't at all affect who you are, which seems quite false, from what I know of practicing artists.

SG: But it does fit with our understanding in the world of Cartesian thinking, which adopts a strict division between mind and body, and makes it extremely difficult to understand how they interact with each other. In the world of Descartes, subjects and objects, self and world, mind and body, belong to fundamentally different realms.

RS: Yes, and that's why I wanted to say that this kind of thinking goes back even further than Descartes, even if in earlier times it wasn't as powerful. I think the difference is that in modern times, we have this modern world picture--you called it "mechanistic," but we could also call it abstract and mathematical --where modern science advanced by separating itself from what's called the life world. In other words, the commonsense world that we see and experience is not the world of science. Galileo said that the world of nature is written in mathematics.

SG: It makes nature into a bunch of concepts.

RS: Yes, but concepts are always involved in our understanding of the world. The important thing about modern mechanistic science was that its concepts were seen as value-neutral, mathematical and abstracted from the practices of ordinary living.

SG: In a curious way, art has patterned itself on a similar model of separation from the life world; and this social isolation, as you've pointed out, has marginalized and disempowered the artist. In our minds, we tend to think of art and science as opposites. We think that art belongs to the "inner" world of imagination, which is not part of the rationalized, conceptual and objectified world of science, and yet the aesthetic attitude has framed our notion of art in a manner that parallels totally the scientific attitude.

RS: I think that's true. Actually, you could say aesthetic subjectivism is the flip side of scientific objectivism. And if you want to go even deeper, you can see both art and science as emerging from the general logic of modernity, which is concerned with liberating the individual subject from the oppressive bond of tradition and the harsh limitations of nature. But, I don't think that modernity has been such a horrible thing. I think, on the whole, it has been good for the West.

SG: Except that modern individualism has run wild, without the balance of any communal thinking.

RS: Yes, but think how much the idea of individualism was important in gaining social and political freedom for the subject: liberation from feudal lords, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the liberation from church constraints, and so on. One of the more positive aspects of individualism and this new privileging of subjectivity--which has as its correlative an objectified nature--is the growth in personal freedom that Western subjects have had. It's not a complete emancipation, however, as Foucault and Adorno have pointed out. Though in one sense the subject has been liberated from external authorities and from the ravages of nature, on the other hand, the subject is incarcerated by other kinds of logics, or regimens, that are more subtly introduced into the subject's own mind through modern society-for instance, the ruthless domination of human nature and desire by crudely instrumental, utilitarian thinking. But however we choose to evaluate this, I think the aesthetic and the scientific do have parallels that can be traced back to this general privileging of the subject and the rationalization of experience associated with modernity.

SG: The other crucial thing they have in common is the ideology of autonomy, meaning that ethics and moral imperatives are considered alien to the situation. Many people are horrified by the idea that art should embody any kind of moral imperative. Ditto science. And even criticism, as both you and I can attest, if it undertakes a moral position, will often engender a lot of resistance.

RS: There's another connection I want to make about science and art that relates to the economic regime of modernity--capitalism. In both art and science we see the need for radical new discoveries. Part of the impulse of modernity--and this has come with us into the postmodern--is the demand for change, new discoveries, new movements in art. It's like you're not a real scientist, or a real artist, unless you're making something new, or pioneering a novel discovery. I don't want to suggest that there's a simple, reductive, economic explanation to this common demand, but it's part of a whole Zeitgeist of always seeking innovations instead of using older forms that may still have good use-value. It dovetails very nicely, and is certainly in the spirit of a capitalist economy, which depends for its survival on constant innovation, because if there aren't new products, there won't be new profits. New products, new markets and new needs--the demand for novelty is something that runs throughout modernity. It has its scientific expression, and it has its aesthetic expression. There is a kind of artificial demand for novelty that keeps us breathless, unsatisfied and neurotic. I can even see it in the world of academic publishing, where there's so much pressure to come up with something new all the time, even when it's only superficially new. Autonomous art may resist straightforward moral engagement, but one of the major ethical injunctions for modern art has been the idea of "making it new." In other words, you weren't a serious artist if you weren't trying to make a radically new statement. Not to attempt this, for an artist, was a moral failure, not merely an aesthetic one.

SG: Postmodernism, of course, has done a pretty efficient job of dismantling that entire ideology.

RS: It has and it hasn't. It has, in the sense that this idea of pure innovation is completely unacceptable. We all now know that everything is a simulation of another simulation, and that we're all recycling, quoting and appropriating--we know about that. But there's still a very strong emphasis on the individual who has this particularly novel way of recycling, or this new way of showing that there is nothing new. Of course, there are people who work outside the institutions and whose primary aim is not trying to be original in terms of the art world's game of originality.

SG: One of the predictably regular responses to such work is that it isn't art. It's something else, something ephemeral, which may be interesting enough at the time, but is without the enduring quality we expect from high art.

RS: For me, one of the interesting questions is to ask at that juncture, what are the stakes in calling something art? Sometimes you can debate with people: Is it art? Isn't it art? And you get into an empty stalemate or into silly circular bickering. Then it's worth asking: In calling this an, what is at stake! That you take the work seriously? Again, what does that mean? That you ascribe an eternal transcendent value to it? I think that we put too large an emphasis on the permanent. It may be part of our theological tradition; for us secular people, art has come to represent the realm of the spiritual in a world that's been disenchanted from religion. And so, we expect from works of art some sort of permanent power, some kind of divine endurance. That kind of demand is, I think, excessive, because it's possible to appreciate lots of things that are ephemeral, like fireworks, or sunsets, or improvisational performances. Lots of beautiful and meaningful things are ephemeral, and part of their value is in the fact that they come and go. To deny that art can be ephemeral is to lock ourselves into an antiquated theological aesthetic.

SG: In the emerging ecological age, ephemerality is a blue-chip notion, because it means not adding to the world's already superabounding burden of stuff.

RS: I think there's a reason, which once again is historical, why we don't like the ephemeral, and why we don't want to associate art with things that don't last. When our world was much more difficult in terms of daily survival, life seemed very precarious, and people needed security and certainty, which is why a lot of the world's philosophies and religions have identified reality with what is unchanging. There's the changing world of appearances, but then there's this final, ultimate reality--people want to believe in something that is eternally real. It's the same thing with the demand for artistic permanence; in an uncertain world, you want to be able to bank on something. You want something you can read or look at forever, so you can always enjoy it. And now, I think, in contemporary times we've solved a lot of technological problems, and even though the solving of those technological problems has led to other problems, there is, at least in the rich Western civilizations, not much fear of immediate survival.

SG: Hey now, wait a minute!

RS: We can manage our pleasures more easily, and so there isn't a problem about investing in things that come, but may not stay. We can appreciate the ephemeral more, because we have security that new pleasures will take their place.

SG: Richard, I have to radically disagree with you here! The running theme of this book concerns the survival of Western industrial civilization. You used the word "precarious," but it was to suggest that the world is less precarious than it used to be. My sense of things is that we are verging on a level of precariousness that extends exponentially beyond anything the world has ever known before. A subtheme of all these conversations is whether or not you consider that we are living in apocalyptic times--and if so, what the role of art should be. Do you want to address that?

RS: I do, and I also want to clarify something. In the global, objective sense, we do live in precarious times, more than before. But the individual's sense of precariousness in her daily life has been greatly diminished. One's particular life feels less precarious, in the sense that it doesn't depend on whether one has a successful hunt today, or not. There's a kind of abundance and insurance--again, I'm only talking here about the rich Western countries where this kind of lifestyle exists. In such a situation, there's less of a need to get spiritual satisfaction and consolation from a belief in something eternal. There is less of a need to insist on art's value as existing in a transcendental, eternal form, because in our cultural life, as in our markets, there is a ready supply of satisfying items. However, I do agree with you about the fragility of the whole world scene.

SG: Do you think that this affects the role of art in the world today?

RS: I don't know whether it does--but I think it should. I think it should in at least two ways. One is that I have a great deal of sympathy with your ecological aesthetic agenda. I think that's a place where national boundaries can be overcome, because these are problems that go beyond particular national chauvinisms and political frontiers. Connected with this idea is the second direction where I think art can help, and that's in international and multicultural understanding. Even though I don't really have very definite and clear ideas about how this can happen, I'm convinced that the goal of an international, multicultural community has to be one of the targets of thinking for the new century. I wouldn't want to legislate this twofold agenda for all art. But I do think the sense of being in touch with the ground, with the earth, is important, not forgetting where we live and where we come from. However great humanity is, it shouldn't lose its contact with its natural local ground. But then, we shouldn't read that particular place in narrow, sectarian terms; we should try and reach out and also understand other cultures and people, who aren't in our particular locale.

SG: Can you give any examples of what you're talking about?

RS: One of the interesting international aesthetic movements that I see is hip-hop, the rap world, which came out of the inner city ghettos in New York, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. Now it has an international following, where it gets adapted into each different locale. Rap is a big thing in England and France. It is even a hit in South America and Japan. Afrika Bambaataa, who was one of the first great artists in that genre, went to Paris pretty early on and introduced his movement, the Zulu nation, into France. The interesting thing about rap is that although it's black music and it maintains its deep connection with African-American culture, when it travels, it gets inflected by the local culture and deals with that local culture's problems. I guess what I'm talking about are two needs that are different, and might even seem conflictual, but perhaps could be brought together--though they don't have to be. One is just the sense of renewed appreciation of where we are on the planet, and that can be ecological. But it doesn't have to be "green," because it's also important for artists to recognize other kinds of local ecologies that aren't "green," like the concrete inner cities, and not to just condemn all that as beyond aesthetic concern. The other need is a renewed appreciation of belonging to a complex multicultural planet, where we need to reach beyond our local geographical and cultural boundaries so as to nourish this richness and to enrich our lives through it.

SG: What you're saying is that we mustn't act as if only nature matters.

RS: Yes, and one reason not to do so is because that is objectifying and externalizing nature.

SG: I suppose it would be like a reversal of our present cultural story--the one in which only culture and Man matter.

RS: That's right. The point is that humanity is part of the natural world. We fall into Cartesianism if we deny that we are part of nature, and regard nature as only external grass and trees and lakes. The failure to recognize that we're part of nature has led to our ravishing of nature, but in ravishing nature, we've also ravished ourselves. So I think we need to work for aesthetic improvement in asphalt as well as green environments. There's always room for aestheticizing in a positive sense--for improving where we are, attending to the local environment, whatever it may be. You know, at the end of my book, I talk about ethics as an art of living, because life is something that you can aesthetically shape. Politics and ethics, at the time of the Greeks, constituted a form of art. Not in Oscar Wilde's aestheticist sense of "art for art's sake," but as something that intelligent people wanted to shape in a way that they thought was honorable, admirable and beautiful. Beauty, in Greece, was linked with the good, and both were considered aesthetic and ethical terms. There wasn't the strict divide that we have between the beautiful and the good.

SG: I totally agree. And before we finish, I'd just like to say how much I admire the comment in your book that "There is no compelling reason to accept the narrow aesthetic limits imposed by the established ideology of autonomous art." You go on to say-- it's a view I happen to share--that this approach has outlived its usefulness.

RS: Yes. Again, I think that autonomous art had its moment. It was good for freeing us from certain things that were on our backs, and on art's back; but now, we've got rid of those old limitations, and this freedom of isolated and purist autonomy can itself become a limitation. There's so much room for art in the practice of living, in how we organize our lives and how we improve them, that the idea of confining art to what we hang on walls is a pathetic failure of theoretical as well as artistic imagination.