Aesthetics Seminar (Monday - Week 7, TT23)

aesthetics seminar

This paper draws on a wider project of mine considering an important theme in the aesthetic theorizing and art-making of the 19th and 20th centuries. An oft-expressed ambition is that art will somehow step in and play some of the roles of religion, as the conventional, doctrinal forms of religion lose their grip. One line taken in this period, from figures such as J.S. Mill, is that religion’s real core is not to be found in its dubious cosmology or its miracle-stories, but rather in its ethical outlook. If the key kernel of religion to be salvaged is ethical in this way, how could art seek to pick up the torch? At first glance, it might seem art will be a purveyor of fables, hammering home its lesson to us unmistakably. Yet as critics of such an agenda for art will be quick to point out, these supposed lessons will be cognitively trivial: truisms we already knew, or else points for which we have no evidential justification. Art trafficking in this sort of didacticism, they think, compromises its aesthetic autonomy and turns itself into a sort of moralistic propaganda. I explore these questions through reflecting on George Eliot, and more specifically, her novel Middlemarch. At the height of her novelistic powers in Middlemarch, she is not giving us didactic, moralistic lessons, but illustrating through her narrator a stance of sympathetic comprehension, charitable forgiveness, and moral humility, which together form the ethical-humanist centrepiece of Eliot’s “religion of humanity.”

Aesthetics Seminar Convenors: Catharine Abell and David Collins