This is a report from the battleground of contemporary culture, a landscape littered with the remains of vilified artworks, demonized artists and discredited orthodoxies. Caught between extremists of the right and the left, liberal defenders of art have stood mutely by as these cultural battles rage and have failed to explain the special value of aesthetic experience. This study counters the surge in fundamentalist thinking about the arts with a liberal aesthetic for our times. The author surveys a wide range of controversies - the Mapplethorpe affair and the death sentence against Salman Rushdie; Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin's crusade to equate pornography with rape and political correctness on college campuses; and the "scholar scoundrels" Anthony Blunt, Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. Steiner shows that the fear and outrage inspired by these cases rests on a dangerous misunderstanding about the relationship between art and life. Steiner reminds us that aesthetic experience requires the ability to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, the figurative from the literal, the virtual from the real.
But for fundamentalists, whether the Ayatollah Khomeini or Jesse Helms, such distinctions are meaningless; saying is doing and a picture is no different from what it represents. Such literalism is at the root of the current uneasiness with difficult art; it threatens to undermine the entire basis of liberal thought and aesthetic experience. Steiner uncovers the folly of this pervasive literalism. Art, she argues, is neither identical to reality not isolated from it, but an imaginative realm tied to the world by acts of interpretation. To experience art, then, means to accept a paradox: we need not assent to a work in order to understand it, or be seduced by its ideology in order to take pleasure in it. Instead, we participate in what Steiner calls "enlightened beguilement." The acknowledgment of this beguilement, this pleasure, has tended, however, to embarrass most academics. How, Steiner wonders, can liberal defenders of the arts ever expect to persuade a skeptical public if they deny or ignore the value of aesthetic experience?
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Number of pages: 264
Weight: 640 g
Dimensions: 235 x 175 x 22 mm