The concept of the aesthetic plays a central role in the writing of the PRAGUE SCHOOL theorists, who relate it to the process of FOREGROUNDING in their work. Jan Mukarovsky, for example, suggests that a given component in a literary WORK can achieve aesthetic effect ‘only by its difference from other components, the so-called foregrounding’ (1964, 65). He further argues:
“Being a structure, that is an indivisible whole, the work of poetry constitutes an esthetic value, a complex phenomenon which is at the same time Unique and regular. Its uniqueness is given by the indivisibility of its composition, its regularity by the mutual equilibration of the relations between the components; being unique the work of poetry is nonrepeatable and accidental; being regular, however, it lays claim to general and permanent recognition.” (1964, 65)
The term aesthetic has tended to crop up in theoretical discussion mainly as a corrective to REDUCTIONIST views of literature than as a prelude to detailed discussion of the specificity of art or literature.
It will be noted that Mukarovsky’s definition of an aesthetic value does not of itself suggest a limitation to works of art or literature, and in this his approach is representative of the much more recent theory. Literary theorists of the past two decades in particular have (to use a distinction which emerged in recent debates among historians) been lumpers’ rather than ‘splitters’, more interested in seeing what works of art and literature have in common with that which is non-artistic than in isolating that which is unique about them. Or, as Frank Kermode puts it in his An Appetite for Poetry, ‘Despite their common devotion to the complexities of language, the newer criticism differs from the old New Criticism in that it challenges “the specificity of the aesthetic” (1989, 10). For this reason the term aesthetic has tended to crop up in theoretical discussion mainly as a corrective to REDUCTIONIST views of literature than as a prelude to detailed discussion of the specificity of art or literature. Indeed, Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) is, as its title suggests, representative in its attempt to DECONSTRUCT the concept of the aesthetic and to explore its historical and ideological roots and variations.
One explanation for this is that typically the concept of the aesthetic has been applied to what are claimed to be universal and/or irreducible rather than context-dependent characteristics, and much recent theory has been unsympathetic to views of literature or art which are founded upon such universal or irreducible elements. Those recent writers on literature for whom the concept has played a central and key role have tended to be those with some connection to the study of aesthetics within the academic discipline of Philosophy, a study – which typically appeals to traditions of thought which go back to the study of art.
The following statement from the first page of the Preface to Stein Haugom Olsen’s The Structure of Literary Understanding (1978) is thus also representative: ‘It has always been acknowledged by those who have cared for literature that at least a part of the reader’s judgements on a work, provided he reads it as a literary work, will be concerned with its aesthetic qualities’ (1978, ix).