The purpose of Gadamer's critique of aesthetic consciousness is “to do justice to the experience (Erfahrung) of art” as an experience of truth (TMioo). So this critique is clearly linked to the truth question just discussed. At the same time, however, the two critiques can and, I think, must be separated, especially if I am right that a significant step in Gadamer's truth critique is unconvincing and unnecessary. The claim about truth as the content of art is not needed to make Gadamer's case against aesthetic consciousness, which is, in short, that it abstracts from what makes art possible. Although I agree in part with this analysis, I think the alienation of aesthetic consciousness, as Gadamer describes it, is not due to the fact that aesthetics is subjective; rather, it is due to the wrong conception of subjectivity, which I shall discuss in the final section. Moreover, such alienation can be overcome without giving up aesthetic consciousness, for all that is needed here is for art to be understood as being capable of having nonaesthetic content. Gadamer's critique of aesthetic consciousness is part of his critique of Kant, and involves the philosophical consequences of the autonomy of aesthetics as well as of art. According to Gadamer, Kant's “main concern … was to give aesthetics an autonomous basis freed from the criterion of the concept, and … to base aesthetic judgment on the subjective a priori of our feeling of life, the harmony of our capacity for ‘knowledge in general’” (TM5g-6o). Kant thus grounded aesthetics in a priori subjectivity in order to secure the autonomy of aesthetics (not of art, which had already been secured, at least in principle). Although Gadamer agrees with Kant that aesthetics should be “freed from the criteria of the concept,” he regards the subjective turn in aesthetics which Kant formalized as an unfortunate event for the ontology of art. Although art “becomes a standpoint of its own and establishes its own autonomous claim to supremacy,” it is now “contrasted with practical reality and understood in terms of this contrast”; that is, “the concept of art is defined as appearance in contrast to reality.” Moreover, there is a profound irony in art's autonomy, according to Gadamer, for once art qua appearance becomes autonomous from reality and is seemingly related only to itself, it continues to be defined by the very reality from which it won its autonomy, at least so long as appearance is defined as such only in opposition to reality—as it was for Plato and Kant. If it is defined in this way, autonomous art has no truth. At the same time, it has no efficacy in the world and is thus alienated from reality (even as it is defined by it); its only
According to Gadamer, this alienated conception of art is the product of aesthetic consciousness, which itself is the effect of the autonomy of art; that is, aesthetics becomes autonomous after art does, but then aesthetics (too) is alienated, and its conception of art reflects this alienation. To overcome such alienation, Gadamer critiques aesthetic consciousness, particularly its process of aesthetic differentiation, which is as follows. Once aesthetics becomes autonomous, judgment replaces taste and consciousness becomes “the experiencing … center from which everything considered art is measured” (TM85). Whereas taste differentiates (that is, selects and rejects) on the basis of some content, “aesthetic differentiation is an abstraction that selects only on the basis of aesthetic quality as such” (TM85). Aesthetic consciousness thereby disregards everything in which a work of art is rooted (its original context of life, and the religious or secular function that gave it significance) so that it becomes visible as a “pure work of art” (TM85). Continuing with this same point, Gadamer concludes: “It practically defines aesthetic consciousness to say that it differentiates what is aesthetically intended from everything that is outside the aesthetic sphere” (TM85).
The consequences of “aesthetic differentiation” are mixed, according to Gadamer. What is good about it is that it separates the aesthetic from everything nonaesthetic and thus, in principle, allows the work of art to be seen in its true being as autonomous appearance. What is negative, and ultimately outweighs the positive contribution, is that the work is abstracted from the world in which it has meaning and now belongs only to the world of aesthetic consciousness: the work is autonomous but meaningless. What is at stake here, however, is not just the meaning of the work but, more fundamentally, its being a work in the first place. “What we call a work of art and experience (erleben) aesthetically depends on a process of abstraction” (TM85). In its extreme form, according to Gadamer, aesthetic consciousness “even abstracts from art” (TM8g). The work of art is thus reduced to an aesthetic object, that is, to an object of aesthetic consciousness (rather than of experience). As such it is an object but not a work.
This is a very strange history indeed. Art struggles for centuries to become autonomous—from reality or, more concretely, from religion, politics tied to monarchic rule, and metaphysics—and once it succeeds, aesthetics becomes autonomous as well. Understood only from the perspective of aesthetic consciousness, however, the work of art is alienated from reality. This means, however, that art is alienated from what makes it art—not just in terms of what makes something the particular historical work of art that it is, but in terms of what makes something a work of art in the first place. In effect, art stops being art once it becomes autonomous, at least so long as art is defined as appearance only in contrast to reality. To recover
These are very strong claims Gadamer is making. To understand them better, it is helpful to note their general philosophical context. Following Heidegger, Gadamer aims to break from the philosophical dichotomy between subject and object which is characteristic of modern philosophy. He claims, for example, that a general purpose of Truth and Method is “to show that understanding is never a subjective relation to a given ‘object’ but to the history of its effect; in other words, understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood” (TMxxxi). In the case of art, this means that “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself” (TMioo). This belonging can, in turn, “be illuminated only on the basis of the mode of being of the work of art itself” (TMioo). In other words, it is the mode of being of a work of art that determines our understanding of that work; so our understanding of the work is an effect of its mode of being. To capture this sense in which our understanding is an effect, Gadamer introduces the notion of “historically effected consciousness” (wirkungsgeschicht-liches Bewusstsein), by which he means “at once the consciousness effected in the course of history and determined by history, and the very consciousness of being thus effected and determined.” In the case of art, aesthetic consciousness is therefore an effect of the mode of being of art qua autonomous appearance. It is thus an effect of art's autonomy; that is, aesthetic consciousness is what is achieved when aesthetics, following art, becomes autonomous.
Although discussion of Gadamer's notion of historically effected consciousness helps to clarify how aesthetic consciousness is formed and what is at stake in his critique of it, it also raises a new question. If aesthetic consciousness is indeed an effect of history and specifically of the autonomy of art and aesthetics, how can Gadamer (or we) resist it? The basis of such resistance must be historical, if he is going to be consistent with his own notion of historically effected consciousness. Presumably, his answer would be that the basis is the experience of art, which he insists has priority over aesthetic consciousness; for example, on the question of whether there is any truth experienced in art, experience says “yes,” while consciousness says “no,” and Gadamer defends experience. Since such truth is not as perspicacious as he believes, however, his answer does not explain how experience can trump consciousness; for, again, we cannot be sure, based on experience alone, of the truth that allegedly gives experience an advantage. Truth aside, the more basic problem here, I think, is the fact that Gadamer opposes experience to consciousness and sides with the former. For example, he says, “The significance of that whose being consists in expressing
Perhaps Gadamer has overstated his case. His criticism of aesthetic consciousness is, as we have seen, that it loses sight of the work of art and ends up with only an object. But he also says, more provocatively, that the being of art cannot be defined as an object at all, not just of aesthetic consciousness, “because the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself.” Gada-mer's claim is that experience is more than it knows of itself, and also that it is more than consciousness could ever know of it. Although this claim points to the limits of consciousness relative to the work or experience that it has taken as its object, such limits alone do not imply that art cannot be taken as an object at all. In addition, from the perspective of aesthetic consciousness, there is a relevant sense in which art (or the experience thereof) is an object, that is, an object of reflection. This object is not the same as the work of art that has been experienced, for reflection is not the same as experience. Yet the work that Gadamer is trying to recover is always already implicit in the object of aesthetic consciousness, so long as “object” here is understood as “the experience of the work of art.” Of course, the specific thing about the work of which aesthetic consciousness has allegedly lost sight is truth, but the principal truth about art that consciousness needs to acknowledge in order to understand the work properly is the truth that the work is autonomous. Surely, consciousness is capable of grasping this truth. Since it is precisely the extreme or absolute version of this same truth that has led to the problem of aesthetic consciousness in the first place, however, what is needed is a moderation of the autonomy of art (and of aesthetics) so that it does not undermine the very possibility of art. This is precisely what Gadamer proposes, and he can achieve this end, I believe, without abdicating aesthetic consciousness.
What Gadamer ultimately wants here, I think, is for art to have some content other than “aesthetic quality,” which means his aim is to recontextual-ize art while respecting its autonomy. But there are other ways of accomplishing this aim without abandoning aesthetic consciousness entirely. For example, in Gadamer's own earlier discussion of the cognitive dimension of art, namely, its role in human self-understanding, it was already established that what we experience in a work of art is a world other than that of consciousness; for self-understanding is possible only through mediation of something other than the conscious self, such as a work of art. Gadamer offers other examples of what he means by the content of art beyond “aesthetic