Beauty and Desire

Beauty and Desire

This seminar takes its point of departure from a perplexing claim that Theodor Adorno makes concerning modern art’s relation to beauty in Aesthetic Theory: “Indeed it is for the sake of the beautiful that there is no longer beauty: because it is no longer beautiful.” Adorno claims that art remains bound to the category of the beautiful: “it is for the sake of the beautiful.” However, the nature of this bond is contradictory. Art preserves a relation to the beautiful only through its negation: “there is no longer beauty.” Art is emphatically not beautiful, but it is nevertheless not indifferent to beauty. Art negates beauty, Adorno suggests, because beauty itself is no longer beautiful. In other words, the meaning of beauty has itself irreparably changed. To affirm beauty thus entails a betrayal of its promise. If art is not to betray the beautiful, art must exhibit beauty’s destitution and thereby separate itself from a beauty whose very form can no longer be beautiful since it has lost its social-historical relevance (for Adorno its insistence can be nothing more than kitsch). But it is in and through this separation from “beauty” that art can maintain a relation to the promise of beauty.

What is this promise that can only be glimpsed in its utter ruination?

It is the wager of this seminar that in order to understand this promise we must grasp beauty’s relation to desire. This course will focus on three decisive texts that pose the problem of this relation in a fundamental manner: Plato’s Phaedrus, Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, and Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure.