During the 1960s and ’70s, as the Theory Revolution swept through humanities departments, one of the fundamental issues in play was the status of beauty. Or rather, the question was whether a pure experience of beauty was possible—purity measured by how far an experience remained independent of social and political elements. Immanuel Kant defined the requisite attitude for beholding beauty as “disinterestedness,” that contemplative frame of mind that asks nothing of the object and judges it by its aesthetic features alone. A man dying of thirst, for instance, cannot tell the difference between a 1982 La Conseillante and a table wine from Trader Joe’s. “It is only when the want is appeased that we can distinguish which of many men has or has not taste,” Kant wrote in Critique of Judgment.
Disinterestedness falters, too, when a person applies personal background to an object, such as disliking a painting because it evokes a painful memory from childhood. Politics and morality also undermine the aesthetic experience. Kant takes the example of Rousseau viewing a gorgeous palace and seeing only the exploitation of peasants who built the pile and never enjoyed its comforts. One can look at things this way, of course, but it will produce something else: a sociopolitical judgment, not an aesthetic judgment. It applies non-aesthetic criteria to the object and thus prevents an experience of beauty from ever happening. It’s not that moral and political content play no role in the judgment of beauty, only that the value of that content lies in its skillful integration into the form and structure, the internal logic of the piece. A patriotic song can impart a good moral message and be very bad art. You can be a patriot all you want, but if you have the right aesthetic distance, you will see that song more clearly than you would if you responded only to its political thrust.
That was one side of the argument. The other side came from the left, mostly from Marxists of various kinds. Needless to say, Marx didn’t believe in this kind of detached, ahistorical beauty. Beauty was an ideological conception designed to back certain class interests, he stated, and he didn’t much elaborate. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx briefly included art with religion, science, and law as “particular modes of production” that, at least in their current forms, estrange man from his rightfully “human, i.e., social mode of existence.” Put another way, art forms part of a superstructure that cloaks the material base of social relations. Disinterestedness is a denial of those relations, a specimen of false consciousness, the illusion of stepping outside of history and class and undergoing an unconditioned apprehension of a putatively higher reality. It is bourgeois in its reliance on an individual consciousness, liberal in its assumption of a free and rational mind in full control of its judgments.
This was the contest, Kantians vs. Marxists, traditionalists in the lineage of Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot against sociological critics such as Raymond Williams, Edward Said, and Kate Millett, whose influential Sexual Politics appeared in 1970. It was fought in graduate seminars at Tier One universities, in professional conferences and scholarly journals, on hiring committees and in editorial offices of academic presses several years before the battle went public in the mid-1980s when Bill Bennett at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Allan Bloom in Closing of the American Mind, and other public conservatives decried “the politicization of the humanities.” By then, however, the war was over, the whole idea of disinterestedness now suspect, the “implicated” condition of the critic a set academic dogma. Yes, the debate over the canon and political correctness exploded in the public sphere as if it were a new development, but the public reaction only hardened anti-Kantian attitudes within the departments that were already securely in place. Professors there had the jobs, they controlled hiring and admissions and publication, they had tenure. What did they care what Dinesh D’Souza said in his 1991 best-seller Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus?
In recent times, when discussing the deterioration of the humanities and their declining prestige, observers have pointed to the rise of identity politics, the fixation on race-class-gender-sexuality, the stifling political correctness. They are right to do so, but wrong to see those phenomena as primary. For all those identitarian developments followed from the prior debate. None of them could have triumphed had not the idea of beauty and the necessarily disinterested appreciation of it been expelled. If students had been taught the advantages of aesthetic distance, they would not consider the issue of sexism in Shakespeare’s comedies a worthy dissertation topic. Instead, they would regard it as a failure to experience the plays in all their lyricism and romance and emotional complexity. Nor would we witness such pinched and prissy spectacles as Paul Elie’s indictment of Flannery O’Connor’s racism in The New Yorker a few months back.
And the humanities would attract a lot more students than they do in this Age of Woke, when majors in history, English, foreign languages, and philosophy have declined precipitously. In removing beauty from the humanities classroom, the professors have lost their strongest attraction. Undergraduates major in a humanities field because they read Jane Austen and hoped a teacher would talk about her; saw some Impressionist paintings and loved them; “encountered incomparable things said incomparably well,” as Emerson said of Leaves of Grass in the famous 1855 letter to Whitman; and they want more. An English teacher who guides them—“Let’s look at how Eliot imparts Prufrock’s moving sadness in these images and metaphors”—is a hit. A professor who projects a Hudson River School painting on the screen and announces on Day One, “I love these landscapes!” sets a happy tone for the semester.
But a professor who puts those works in the context of social injustice, who sniffs at Emerson’s less than enlightened take on slavery, who censures a seventeenth-century artist by the social standards of today, is a downer. He kills the joys of art and literature. He turns the humanities into a second-rate social science and never utters a word about taste. I was well into my third year at UCLA before settling upon an English major (I took five years and two summer schools to graduate), and if my first teachers asked us to see Milton through an identitarian lens, I probably would have skipped over to philosophy. I expected them to assume the greatness and fun of novels and poems and plays, not their adherence to political mores.
I remember one session of English 10C, the third quarter of the year-long sophomore survey required of every major, taught by Professor Kolb and running from Tennyson to Auden. That day he lectured on Browning’s dramatic monologues and paused to give a full-throated rendition of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” hamming it up with all the gusto of a nineteenth-century thespian. It was ridiculous—and altogether entertaining. When he finished, all 200 students applauded. This is what made the English major so popular back then.
In order to win the undergraduates once more, the humanities have a clear course to follow. They must abandon identity politics, which only produce a tense and humorless classroom. More deeply, they must insist upon the old appeals to genius, greatness, masterpieces, beauty, and sublimity. They should shun the political language of the left, as well as the liberal lexicon of “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”
And they should not let the moral righteousness of political correctness intimidate them. Back in the Seventies, the political ones had a certain authority of anti-discrimination on their side. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Liberation were still fresh and energetic, giving political professors an edge over the traditionalists. The latter rated Ezra Pound one of the talents of the twentieth century. The former replied, “You really want to make students read that anti-Semitic swine?” “Yes,” they should have said, “we sure do,” but the zeitgeist of moral advancement was too strong for the traditionalists to hold firmly to the separation of aesthetics from politics.
Young people, in particular, learned to back off. A buddy of mine did a dissertation on Frank Norris and Hemingway and managed to secure an interview at the 1990 Modern Language Association convention with Hamilton College. As he sat down in a hotel room with members of the hiring committee, he mentioned that it was nice to talk about American literature with people from the school where Pound earned his bachelor’s degree. A few seconds of silence followed before one of them, a grim woman in sloppy dress (he told me), replied, “Some of us prefer to forget Pound was ever here.” The conversation didn’t pick up after that. My friend ended up going to law school in Minnesota.
Things have changed, though, not with hiring but with the popularity of the majors. We are at the point where the anti-discrimination movement is tired and repetitive. Oh, yes, the Woke Revolution is urgent and ruthless, but that’s because it’s out of intellectual gas. The catchwords and slogans you hear in the movement were already clichés back in 2000. There is nothing intellectually deep or aesthetically clever about Wokeness, and it suffers badly when compared to humanities theories of old. Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy is an ingenious explanation of that brand of human suffering; intersectionality is a pedestrian enumeration of identity factors with a dose of ressentiment giving it stridency. Hegel will last, intersectionality won’t. I think many young people sense this. Students are ready for a charismatic humanities that forgoes the mission of progressive politics. They want to enjoy Flannery O’Connor, not put her in the dock. They don’t need their humanities teachers to repeat what they get from Campus Life events, celebrities on Twitter, and advertising from Nike and The Gap.
Humanities departments that want to thrive should declare a different mission in forthright terms such as those the art major at Hillsdale College uses under the heading “FROM VAST BEAUTY TO THE DEEPER MEANING WITHIN”: “What’s the most noble and worthwhile activity an artist can undertake? The pursuit of beauty.” They should announce their goals proudly as does the English Department at Biola University: “Together, we aim to appreciate the beauty and power of language. . . .” The English Department at Catholic University openly pledges its “Focus on Literary History and Aesthetics.” How much more compelling are those promises than bland and uninspiring summations such as this one: “Among the most diverse and challenging programs in the country, CU Boulder’s English department teaches undergraduates and graduate students to read and write with precision, to think critically, to be creative, and to practice an attentive life.” That’s all, one wonders, nothing more? What about the actual content of the curriculum? Does it matter what students read, or is this major only about certain skills? It sounds as if the professors are bored with their own materials.
Perhaps that outcome was inevitable once the humanities lost the beauty component. When politics became the point—progressive politics, of course—much of the curriculum lost its sheen. It was old, first of all, and too many old-time authors and artists had old-fashioned ideas, and professors haven’t found enough Woke creators to take their place. They can’t get around the political incorrectness of Milton, Pope, Wagner et al., and so they must shift away from the actual content of their fields to the cognitive benefits of humanistic study.
It’s a losing tactic. Most people are willing to set aside Wagner’s social notions and savor highlights from the Ring cycle. The n-word in Huckleberry Finn doesn’t prevent them from laughing at the comedy and absorbing the cruelty and bloodshed. They know that art is as complicated as human beings, and that greatness and beauty sometimes coincide with sin. They don’t want their humanities teachers to be purists. They want them to be stewards of beauty and brilliance, guardians of the best that has been thought and said, dedicated to helping others experience what they experienced when they listen to the first seven minutes of Das Rheingold, read the last paragraph of “The Dead,” and stand at the foot of the Empire State Building. Humanities professors are links in a long, long chain of inspiration, not agents of the disenchantment of the world. The individuals and departments that accept this higher calling will be the ones that prosper in the coming years.