Aesthetic Experience (Richard Adelman)
By sussexenglishencs, Oct 11 2016 12:52PM
Culture & Anarchy holds an ambiguous position in the history of aesthetics. On the one hand it is a powerful moment in the growth of what is now termed ‘aesthetic democracy’, the radical imagining of a society centred around and animated by aesthetic experience. In this vein Arnold’s work follows the revolutionary fervour of Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s plans for a ‘Pantisocratic community’ in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, and anticipates William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and even the later anarchist culture referred to by Tom Wright below. On the other hand, however, Culture & Anarchy is also an extremely influential instance of the problematic hardening and gentrification of aesthetic experience that takes place around the mid-point of the nineteenth century. It is this latter aspect of Arnold’s thought that I want to dwell on here briefly, and it is William Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) that I want to use to exemplify my point.
If one compares early nineteenth-century accounts of aesthetic experience with that given by Arnold in Culture & Anarchy, then, what one finds is that the former are significantly more egalitarian and pluralist than the model Arnold formulates. This is because the earlier accounts of aesthetic experience configure any encounter with the natural world, however brief or restricted, as full and profound moments of access to the realm of aesthetic freedom and its breadth and harmony of consciousness. Think, for instance, of Coleridge’s suggestion that his youthful, urban experience of the ‘sky and stars’ sparked his later immersion in natural beauty. Aesthetic experience, furthermore, is understood as innate in every individual, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as works as diverse as Lyrical Ballads (1798) and Sartor Resartus (1833-4) demonstrate. Even as late as 1848, John Stuart Mill’s Political Economy can claim that society must promote the individual’s access to natural beauty for the same reasons elaborated by Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads. Aesthetic experience engenders moral consciousness, and thus guards against the problems attendant on commercial society by guaranteeing an individual’s psychic harmony.
In the thought of Arnold, and of his contemporaries John Ruskin and Walter Pater, however, a far-reaching reconfiguration of aesthetic experience takes place. For in common with Pater, Arnold renders aesthetic experience, and breadth of consciousness, a matter of book learning above all else. The ‘man of culture’ must be acquainted with ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. He must read, observe and think about every ‘voice’ from ‘art, science, poetry, philosophy, history’ and ‘religion’. And, on top of this daunting library catalogue of material, he must then, ‘through this knowledge, turn […] a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. Arnold’s version of how psychic harmony and breadth of consciousness are arrived at has become a life-long programme of study and then reflection, in other words. As for Ruskin and Pater in the 1850s and 60s, therefore, aesthetic culture is professionalized, gentrified and rendered a matter of elite experience. For the thought of these three figures gives almost no place to natural beauty, and no credence to the previously near-universal idea that aesthetic consciousness is spontaneously engendered when any individual is faced with natural beauty.
This hardening and narrowing of aesthetic experience in Culture & Anarchy might be explained by the fraught political context of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. For hardened conceptions of aesthetic contemplation seem to flare up — in the early 1850s after chartism’s climax and the European revolutions of 1848-9, and in the late 1860s after the Reform League agitation that led to the Second Reform Act — in direct response to moments of civic unrest around the questions of reform. Ruskin’s architectural criticism sits in the first of these moments, Arnold’s Culture & Anarchy and Pater’s Renaissance in the second. The accessibility and instantaneousness of aesthetic experience thus give way, in these fraught moments, to a more studied, a more professionalized, and therefore a more elitist model of cultural education and training. And aesthetic consciousness is no longer conceived as offering instantaneous moral consciousness, and as therefore promising political stability, because the physical and material wants that stand behind contemporary unrest are now understood as more pressing than — and as too concrete to be touched by — issues of psychic attitude or an aesthetic state of mind.
Turner’s Norham Castle, then, should be read as a late example of the pluralist, egalitarian model of aesthetic experience that Arnold and his contemporaries reject. The painting’s subject, Norham Castle in Northumberland, was first seen by Turner in 1797, but was then revisited in 1801 and 1831. The painting's fragile, dream-like quality thus evokes the transcendence from physical beauty to spiritual consciousness that early nineteenth-century literary thought also dramatizes. The composition’s sparseness, simplicity and even vagueness seem to me its most important qualities, however. For the mode of seeing captured and crystalized in this canvas is not one that requires specific historical or architectural knowledge of its subject castle. Neither does this style of vision rely on the kind of politics of landscape invoked by John Clare’s broadly contemporary poetry of ‘enclosure’. Instead, transcendent vision occurs here from a point of view that is plain, untutored and open to any spectator. The painting’s range of near-primary colours casts its experience as somehow unelaborated, unadorned, but nevertheless both pure and powerfully other-worldly. The Arnoldian counterpart to this image could be Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream (1869-71) in which, in common with other Pre-Raphaelite art, aesthetic fervour must be worked up by layering literary-historical reference and by moving as far away as possible from the plainness of everyday vision. Turner’s work is thus an open and general invitation to experience, and to attain breadth of consciousness. Arnold’s thought, and the kind of artistic practice that follows it, is an invitation to read, to travel and to study — if you have the leisure and means for these tasks — and to thereby begin the long process of attaining authority in the elite world of ‘culture’.