Richard Shusterman Form and Funk“ taken from “The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art,” 1991

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Richard Shusterman "Form and Funk“ taken from “The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art,” 1991

Books by Shusterman

  • Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992,) 2nd edition (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

  • Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (New York: Routledge,1997)

  • Performing Live (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000) - translated into German.

  • Surface and Depth: Dialectics of Criticism and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

  • Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

  • Thinking through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics (2012)

Has also written on Rap

  • “Fine Art of Rap” New Literary History, 22, no. 3 (1991), 613-632.

  • “Rap Remix: “Challenging Conventions in the Fine Art of Rap,” in M. Hjort (ed.), Rules and Conventions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 186-214.

  • “Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and other Issues in the House,” Critical Inquiry, 22, no.1 (1995).

  • “Art Infraction: Goodman, Rap, Pragmatism”, Australian Journal of Philosophy, 73 (1995), 269-279.

  • “Pragmatism, Art, and Violence: The Case of Rap”, in T. Yamamoto (ed.), Philosophical Designs for a Socio-Cultural Transformation (Tokyo and Boulder: E.H.E.S.C. and Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 667-674.

  • “Rap as Art and Philosophy”, T. Lott and J. Pitman (eds.), Companion to African-American Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 419-428.

Popular Art Vilified

  • Popular art has been vilified as mindless, tasteless trash, both by the [political] left and right.

  • My pragmatism is critical of the alienating esotericism and totalizing [both descriptive and prescriptive] claims of high art.

  • I am also critical of the idea of an unbridgeable divide between high and popular art: the popular art of one culture can become the classics of another later age.

Popular Art and Intellectuals

  • Popular art provides us (even intellectuals) with too much aesthetic satisfaction to reject it.

  • Rejecting it divides us intellectuals against the rest of community, and against ourselves.


  • Since Plato, intellectuals have used this ascetic [not aesthetic] renunciation to subordinate the unruly power of the aesthetic.

Four factors make it difficult to defend popular art.

  • 1. We are forced to accept the (hardly neutral) terms of the intellectualist attack.

  • 2. Even defenders of popular art tend to concede its aesthetic poverty, perpetuating the myth of aesthetic worthlessness of popular art.

  • 3. We tend to think of high art only in terms of the work of genius, while popular art is identified with the mediocre.

  • But high art is not all masterpieces, and popular art is not all tasteless.

  • 4. The term "aesthetic" is appropriated to the high art, sophisticated style.

Pierre Bourdieu, France, 1930-2002

  • Although French Sociologist/Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu exposes the hidden economy and veiled interests of so-called disinterested aesthetic of high culture, he cannot recognize a legitimate popular aesthetics.

Pierre Bourdieu Wikipedia [accessed April 12, 2010]

  • “His best known book is Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste [1984], in which he argues that judgments of taste are related to social position. His argument is put forward by an original combination of social theory and data from surveys, photographs and interviews, in an attempt to reconcile difficulties such as how to understand the subject within objective structures.”


  • The term "aesthetic" did originate in intellectual discourse, but now is no longer so narrowly confined.

  • Aesthetic terms such as "grace" "elegance" "unity" and "style" are applied to popular art. [Sibley]

  • It is surprising that Bourdieu concedes to high culture such highly valued terms as "art" and "aesthetic."

Defending the aesthetic legitimacy of popular art.

  • I will challenge major indictments raised by Bourdieu, and will focus on funky rock music inspired by African American culture.

James Brown, 1933-2006, “The Godfather of Soul”

Opponents of Popular Art

  • The opponents of popular art say that, unlike high art, it involves no aesthetic challenge, but requires a passive response.

  • Bourdieu: it has simple repetitive structure, which explains its wide appeal and its inability to truly satisfy.

  • Adorno and Horkheimer: pleasure hardens into boredom, and no independent thinking is expected from the audience.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) 1941 "On Popular Music"

Adorno and Max Horkheimer
wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment , 1944

Somatic Forms

  • But legitimate activity is not the same as serious thinking: there are other more somatic [body oriented] forms of effort, resistance, and satisfaction.

  • Rock songs, for example, involve moving, dancing, singing.

Mosh Pit

Robert Altman “Dance!
Hippie Hill~ GG Park” 1967

Vs. Highbrow concerts

  • More effortful somatic activity is involved in appreciation of rock than in highbrow music.

  • Highbrow concerts make us sit in silence without moving: and this causes us to go to sleep!

Funky music.

  • “Funky” which originally meant “positive sweat” is “expressive of an African aesthetic of vigorously active and communally impassioned engagement rather than dispassionate judgmental remoteness."

Passivity underlies our appreciation of high art.

  • It can be found in the ideas of aesthetic attitude, and disinterested [Kant], distanced contemplation.

  • Philosophically this is based on placing knowledge over pleasure and the individual over communal interaction. [Chernoff]

  • Popular arts encourage an aesthetic of joyous return to the somatic [body] dimension which philosophy has long repressed. [Nietzsche]

Two criticisms of popular music.

  • Adorno: popular music is regressive because it is somatic [body oriented].

  • Allan Bloom [1930-1992]: rock appeals to sensuality and sexual desire: it is anti-logical. [The Closing of the American Mind, 1987]

Allan David Bloom (1930-1992) Indianapolis The Closing of the American Mind, 1987


  • The problem with rock is its deep appeal to sensuality and sexual desire: it is hostile to reason. [Bloom translated Plato’s Republic.]

John Lennon, British musician, 1940-1980

  • “Rock n’ Roll music gets right through to you without having to go through your brain.” quoted by Mark Miller, 1988, in support of his attack on Rock.

But these attacks on popular music involve two logical blunders. Instead, Shusterman holds that:

  • THE SENSUOUS APPEAL OF ROCK DOES NOT ENTAIL ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM, for the sensuous is not incompatible with the intellectual.


Popular art is often attacked for its lack of formal complexity.

  • Bourdieu: The very notion of “aesthetic attitude” (focusing on form rather than function) leads to formal complexity and multiple meanings.

  • Bourdieu: Yet popular art affirms the continuity between art and life (and subordinates form to function), and so cannot achieve formal complexity or be legitimate: the popular aesthetic is essentially opposed to art.

Content displaced by form and relationality

  • Bourdieu thinks aesthetic legitimacy only happens when content is displaced by form, and emphasis is placed on relations to, and comparison with, other works.

  • Shusterman: but works of popular art are also relational in that they refer to each other, and this contributes to their formal complexity.

  • The popular art audience is even more literate in their traditions than the high art audience.

Also form and content are not necessarily opposed!

  • What displays formality is not the same as what has form: only the former is distanced.

  • Form, as Dewey said, is part of the shape of living, and aesthetic form has its roots in body rhythms shaped by social conditions.

  • Form can be funky too!


  • Adorno and Bourdieu think that the autonomy essential to artistic legitimacy is lacking in popular art.

Shusterman: why should art be opposed to real life?

  • This attitude originated in Plato to insure philosophy's sovereignty in determining reality.

  • But art can be seen as part of life, and life constitutes itself artistically in the art of living.

  • In ancient Athens the arts were intimately integrated into everyday life.

Postmodern implosion

  • Bourdieu assumes that the evolution of art into an autonomous form in the nineteenth century was permanent.

  • Postmodern culture, however, suggests an “implosion of the aesthetic into all areas of life.” [Derrida and Eisenman]

  • Bourdieu neglects the aesthetic in which life is central and popular art is redeemed.

Shusterman follows Dewey’s Pragmatist theory of art

  • which makes the energies, needs and pleasures of the live creature central to aesthetic experience.

Bourdieu: Popular Art

  • denies its own aesthetic validity by implicitly accepting the domination of the high art aesthetic which denigrates it: so there is no popular art, and popular culture is a paradoxical notion.

Shusterman: this fails as a global argument against popular art.

  • In America this is not true: many popular artists see their role as more than mere entertainment, and the artistic status of their art is frequently recognized.

  • Also, there is aesthetic criticism of the popular arts (using the same aesthetic predicates one applies to high art). [Sibley]

The aesthetic message from America is "get down” and “get funky.”

  • The conservative taste of contemporary philosophical aesthetics makes it likely this message will not be heard by intellectuals.

  • Yet there is room for theoretical work in popular aesthetics.

  • If aesthetic philosophy neglects this it may lose touch with the cultural world.

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