While talking with Tom Bertonneau the other day, the conversation turned to the obvious and therefore invisible fact that great nineteenth-century art of every kind, from poetry to painting, gave and still gives genuine pleasure to a broad spectrum of the public, whereas that of the twentieth century in general does not. Whence the reference to the “end of culture.”

Since there is no reason to assume that techniques have declined, nor that the number of talented people in the arts has diminished, this result seems perverse. Why is it that we must listen to Beethoven and Wagner, read Dickens and Dostoevsky, look at Delacroix or Manet, to experience real esthetic pleasure? Why do these works move us more than those created closer to our own time, where only the mass experience of popular art has a real rapport with the public?

Nothing is explained by evoking the “evolution” of the arts or by pseudoscientific references to cultural “memes.” The overall evolution of human society, for which the Darwinian analogy is less problematic, is not driven by esthetic excellence: the arts, as Marx said, are part of the superstructure. But the infrastructure is not primarily economic but ethical. The mature exchange system is not autonomously driven by the “falling rate of profit,” but by the mediation of human relations by ever-changing differential meanings increasingly incarnated in articles of consumption. Art reflects and reveals the fundamental cultural structures beneath these relations.

What makes great art impossible today is, quite simply, that we don’t really need or want it. Just as humanity was born when apes became too mimetic to remain animals, so high art ends when humans become too mimetic to remain cultured. The great art of the nineteenth century is informed by an authoritative esthetic subjectivity–a musical or narrative voice, a painterly vision–that we can no longer tolerate today, even in the ironic premodern mode of BaudelaireFlaubert, or Mahler. As we become connoisseurs of consumption, the sacred aura of art becomes an obstacle to the construction of the personal esthetic by which we demand reciprocity from others. We accord the artist the luxury of temporarily dominating our imaginations only because he is revealing to us a potential means of temporarily dominating that of others–that is, of making ourselves into an esthetic center. The particular wealth of pleasure we obtain from the art of early market society comes from the vast opportunities made available by the new Romantic esthetic of revelation through personal experience liberated from a priori ritual constraints. The personal authority of the esthetic subject is that of a guide who shows us how to integrate our experience of a historically-changing world.

But no cultural structure can contain the danger of mimesis once and for all. The greatness of nineteenth-century art is not static, not even to the extent that of the preceding century was static. It evolves rapidly from generation to generation through the “anxiety of influence” because it is revelatory not merely of the world but of the creative self’s possibilities within the world. The barrier of esthetic form guaranteed the Romantic expansion of the creative ego in the early days of the market system, when the desires that drove it could be conceived as essentially fixed, determined by “need”–all further consumption being condemned as the profligacy of the rich. But once this expansion, mediated through consumer production, comes to provide a model for the general public, the artist becomes for us an internal rival rather than an external model. Neither the hyperbolic snobbery of modernism nor the mock humility of postmodernism can reproduce the esthetic effect of the nourishing paternalism of the previous century. In the modernist era, art’s elitist denial of the market leads to its ascetic denial of desire; in the postmodern, the populist-ironic acceptance of the market destroys desire by the opposite tack of saturation–a technique of which Warhol, with his sheets of Marilyns and soup-labels, and interminable films, was the supreme master.

To occupy the center stage in the post-Holocaust era, the artist must offer a guarantee that he poses no danger of mimetic contagion. Such an attitude is essentially incompatible with the authority of high art, which increasingly retreats from the public scene to niche markets of fellow specialists. (I hope to devote another Chronicle to the specific problem of writing poetry in an era when it is read and judged only by other poets.) Meanwhile, popular art, which can and does flourish, is appreciated for its very lack of revelatory density: for providing possibilities of self-imaging rather than self-realization. The poses imitated by the young Romantic were guaranteed by a substantial esthetic self; for today’s consumer, image is all. This year’s hot act, the Spice Girls, have netted some $250,000,000 by marketing a playful image of female independence and strength–probably about as much as the combined salaries of the academics who make a living analyzing the deep structures of identity politics.


The postmodern decline of the high culture is undeniable, and the elite variants of popular culture, such as jazz and the art film, that once appeared poised to take its place have not fared as well as was once expected. Should we be ready then to say that we have definitively granted priority to our consumption-based self-constructions over the productions of art? Is the only authentic esthetic relationship that of the fellow consumer who casually exhibits his life-style to his entourage?

The real question, as always, is ethical. Whether or not one accepts Christianity, the modern world cannot accommodate the moral revelations of an exemplary figure like Jesus. Those who present themselves as his successors have at best founded successful sects; they have not revolutionized our ethical vision. Similar points could be made about the other major religions. This does not mean that there has been no ethical progress in the West since Jesus’ time. But the very power of his exemplarity makes further exemplarity impossible; the true reciprocity of the Kingdom can be approximated on earth only by devaluing the center, with Doug Collins’ “prehumiliation” replacing the more dignified humility of the imitatio Christi.

Why should the same not be true for art, which took the place of religion for a century or so (1848-1945) as the most profound spiritual activity of the bourgeois world? We will always have the beauty of nineteenth-century art to fall back on, but its revelations have now been absorbed into our own esthetic self-constructions. It is no coincidence that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose depersonalized narration marks the beginning of the end for the authoritarian 19th-century esthetic subject, is also the first novel that illustrates the creation of meaning through consumption. Emma is the first member of the consumer society to which all of us now belong; Madame Bovary, c’est nous.

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is not that we must take our models of human relations from those notorious afternoon talk shows, but rather that their very degradation should remind us that the scene of 19th-century “mimetic” art, with its unproblematic division between a personalized center and a passive periphery, is not an eternal but a historically bound form of interaction. We remain attached to 19th-century art because it allows us to re-experience the formation of the modern self as the incarnation of the originarily human within the historical dynamism of market society. As we leave childhood for adolescence, we each experience our own Romantic era: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. A contemporary artwork that sought to duplicate the esthetic of that era would be both superfluous and historically false.