Tuesday, June 1, 2010

More German Pretties

A brief and mostly useless overview of German aesthetics, Part One!

The German philosophers who were most hung up (they totally ate their hearts out) on aesthetics were those of the Romantic era. Germany had its Romantics too! Not the same lovely, sad, super-poetic drowning kind we find in England, but if you want to think of the word romantic in its own everyday sense, these passionate Germans (hybrid philosopher-poets, though they had their straight-up poets too) really were some of the least ponderous and least solemn of their race, and some of the most open and vulnerable German writers (as much as philosophers can be). They delighted in ideas and possessed a unique mix of optimism and concern for the "aesthetic" of their day. They are important, I think, partially because they have been so overlooked. When we get started on aesthetics, we turn to the solid, more rigidly argued (or at least drier) texts of the classicists and idealists -- Hegel, Kant, or even Schiller -- most often. Then when we uncover philosophy (contemporary with all this reason!) that plays at being art, and artists who play at being philosophers, perhaps we just don't know what to do with all of that.

The above mentioned sensitive fellows I am rereading, but there are other Germans I'll have to go back to eventually as well.

As I reread these eighteenth-to-nineteenth century Germans I'm reminded of their fin de siecle-to-twentieth century descendants, as well as their rational contemporaries. I won't get too far into these unromantic aesthetic philosophers here because they're all over the place, but here's a rundown. If there's some approach you've had in mind, maybe one of these guys can help you with it, or at least provide some entertainment (Nietszche is probably the only one of these that can be read "for fun"). These guys all link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (sorry Wiki fans).

Schiller, early on, believes an "aesthetic education" can lead to political equality and participation. He reminds me of an early American thinker. Kant gets to aesthetics in one of his critiques and attaches it to morals (yuck!), which is nothing beautiful, although some of his ideas influence our Romantic fops (were they fops? I don't know...). Hegel, in good Hegelian form, ties his aesthetics to his already overburdened geist-wagon. Art is a function of things already in play, not a cause of them. Art does advance, which is nice n' all, but for Hegel it eventually becomes kinda useless, as did his early friendship with Schlegel the hopeless Romantic (Aww, Hegel-n-Schlegel woulda made a cute pair!). The previous three philosophers were roughly contemporary with the Romantics. The following three came after. Nietzsche is pretty crazy on aesthetics and mostly loves on/hates on Wagner's operas and Christianity to explain his quasi-divine theories. He has a point, however, that society is becoming too analytic, but he thinks the way back to synthesizing all our human parts is by subjecting ourselves to lots and lots of tradegies. And by keeping women in their place, of course. Heidegger, alchemist-like, melds aesthetics and ontology and other deep stuff. He uncovers a beauty dangerously close to the pith of all existence and does some violence (what he usually accuses technical language of doing) to some romantic German poetry (actually its more like violent love-making) to show us how art opens up the world. Then Adorno throws some big 2oth century monkey wrenches into the capitalist aesthetics machine! Sounds fun huh? But back to the Romantics. As I read along maybe I'll post some similarly condensed summaries of their thoughts to show how varied even the old fellers' studies of aesthetics can get -- studies from before art ever went haywire and before Marxism ever entered the water supply!

Suggested "non-Romantic" Reading, in roughly chronological order:
  • Here's something on Kant again -- you probably don't want to read Critique of Pure Judgment unless you're into that sorta thing
  • Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man
  • Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, mostly the introduction
  • Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, usually conveniently stuck together despite being miles apart
  • Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought contains lots of art/poetry essays, but I can't really tell you where to start with that dude.
  • Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which performs "a dialectical double reconstruction" of the history of art, according to Stanford. Sounds scary (it is scary reading sometimes) but it does something important, and helps immensely with all the philosophy-as-art/art-as-philosophy confusion I mentioned a couple posts back.
I am amazed by my philosophy professor who taught these texts last year, and commend my classmates who stepped up and wrote on everyone from Adorno to Holderlin and I know spent many late nights re-re-re-re-reading at the library ('cause I was there too). Though I think teaching some of this stuff must be way more frightening than reading it.


  1. You are a blogging machine, Robyn :) I almost don't know where to start.

    I'm sad to admit, the Romantic Era is not one that I'm particularly knowledgeable on. In fact, my whole grasp of history is sadly lacking. However, your excitement of the subject is positively contagious.

    I like Schiller's idea about aesthetic education leading to equality.

    Hegel-n-Schlegel: sounds like an ice cream company.

    Synthesizing all our human parts by subjecting ourselves to loads of tragedies, perhaps it's just in my current state of mind, but wouldn't that lead to nihilism? "Nothing matters, we're all just going to end up worm food anyway." I'm oversimplifying Nietzsche, bad me.

    I too am amazed by really good philosophy professors. There are times when I look back on some of the texts I read and think "I freaking read that? And understood it?! Inconceivable!"

  2. You're right, "Nietzsche the nihilist" is the most common misconception about him. Nihilism itself is a pretty untenable position, and Nietzsche only uses anything like it to move onto something else. Let's realize that certain things don't mean a damn thing, but lets also realize that the illusions we have about what's important are what keep us going! His most existential writing is actually pretty life affirming (what could be more LIFE affirming than denying that the afterlife is so important?), despite the fragments of negativity that crop up and the wild stories (i.e. "God's murder") he uses to prove some points. The best Nietzsche I can recommend for clearing up (or maybe just compounding) the nihilism confusion is The Gay Science. It's in fragments so you can easily just read a few and mull them over, then move onto the next section (which may seem to contradict what you just read, but there is a method to that madness).


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