An extract from Subversion and Subsidy. Contemporary Arts and Aesthetics. By Rainer Rochlitz, translated by Dafydd Roberts.
Art has always been the object of critiques and defences that put forward arguments for or against works under consideration. Why does contemporary art so often seem to be beyond the reach of criticism or rational justification? Why does the debate so often boil down to total rejection or blind solidarity? Oddly enough, this situation prevails both in the contemporary visual arts and, for example, in popular music. These domains seem to play, in the psychic economy of their partisans, the roe of a radical refuge from the principles that govern today’s world: economics, power, the functional sterility of life. They seem to offer some of the rare spaces of freedom and uncompromising expression. To draw distinctions there seems to contaminate them with the perverse spirit of the rationalized world.
In the wake of a millennial disenchantment, art alone today seems capable of offering some semblance of the ‘sacred’ and of imposing a limit on an invasive reason. And fear in the face of modern autonomy tends primarily to find refuge in the quasi-religious attitude of the admirer and interpreter of canonical works. Judging and deciding for oneself should go without saying. In the political realm, whose structure depends on such autonomous judgement, this is challenged only by the anti-democratic instincts of nostalgics and profound skeptics. But the same principle also applies to the policies of art institutions, as soon as they claim to act in the public interest. If the judgement of every Tom, Dick or Harry seems to constitute a threat to the independence of artists and creators, if, as in the realm of science, the incompetence of the majority tends to inhibit innovation, rejecting anything that might challenge common sense and well-established prejudice, it is nonetheless indispensable that choices made in the name of all, should, in one way or another, be justified before all. Periodically, contemporary art becomes the subject of public debate on the ‘abuse’ represented by the challenges laid down by artists disinclined to compromise with the public, debates that invoke the common sense and the ‘reasonableness’ of ordinary citizen. The role of ‘aesthetic rationality’ would be to remove the appearance of arbitrariness from the public recognition of work that at first sight are calculated to shock the sensibilities of a public unfamiliar with the language of contemporary art.
A legitimating reason, or a reason that interrogates legitimacy, becomes increasingly important with the growing enfeeblement of other mechanisms of regulation, such as the existence of a broad milieu of informed connoisseurs. The internal logic of a rationality is independent of its social function: when we speak of rationality in connection with questions of truth, justice or aesthetic quality, the concept refers not to a calculation independent of all perception, interpretation or appreciation, but to the ‘normative dimension’ that characterizes, in its different way each time, claims, acts or works.
To speak of aesthetic rationality is not a matter of provocatively rejecting a tradition that has made art the absolute other of the ‘Socratic culture’ and seeks jealously to protect it from all rational calculation. This tradition was not without legitimacy as a response to an undifferentiated extension of scientific rationalism and a puritan morality to the domain of the aesthetic. What is at issue here is something else. When one opposes art and reason, it is no longer possible to make distinctions between artworks and artistic events other than in the name of a particular sensibility or affinity, in the name of unjustified and unjustifiable preferences and complicities. And there may be very good reasons to distinguish between art and that which is not art, and to establish orders of importance within the different arts.
No rationality can predict or deduce an aesthetically significant work; aesthetic ‘rationality’ is not a matter of calculation, but of the reasons that enter into the decisions of artists; reasons which, however, as a general rule—and even in the case of Conceptual Art—can only be formulated after the event. Without endeavoring to reduce art as a whole to any form of reason, the notion of ‘aesthetic rationality’ is intended rather to identify as feature of works of art that distinguishes them from other objects, also themselves ‘aesthetic’, which is that they expect to be understood in their ambition and recognized for their success, such that they are susceptible of criticism and of reasoned justification. A distinction must be drawn between the status of a work of art as a non-discursive configuration and the rationality that gives the measure of its achievement and its appreciation. A natural phenomenon cannot be criticized in the same way, because it makes no claim of its own aesthetic value. Such value is only attributed to it from without, and if such a phenomenon is said to be beautiful or ugly then it is only this claim, not the thing itself, that can be criticized. A work of art, on the other hand, always presents itself as being worthy of attention by virtue of certain qualities. Even an object deliberately made almost imperceptible lays claim to this critical attention in presupposing the normally perceptible character of a work that is intended to be recognized as such.