Schiller’s letters distill a number of concepts from Kant’s ideas on aesthetics. For Schiller, aesthetics are inherently political because Schiller equates beauty with good. Thus, for Schiller, aesthetic training is also political training; this is both wonderfully utopian and rather alarmingly fascist.
Written after the French Revolution, Schiller is responding directly to the political milieu of his time. He defends the study of art in a time of revolution, claiming that it is not trivial, for only beauty shows us the way to freedom. Like Kant, Schiller sees aesthetics as a sort of transitional interest on the way to a utopian politics. Schiller sees a kind of teleological development of history, in which a wholeness of the intellect and Nature has devolved into fragmented and specialized practices (a precursor to how Marx thinks of commodity production). Though we have progressed collectively, Schiller questions whether it has benefited the individual in any way. He wants to have his cake and eat it too – to continue to progress as a society while aesthetics heals our wounds and relates the individual back to the whole again.
Why has the revolution failed? This failure seems to plague Schiller and other thinkers of the time. “Live with your century, but do not be its creature,” he writes in letter 7 (like Jameson trying to get distance as well). Schiller admires Kant’s ideas, but thinks Kant can only arise in a society so fragmented that it needs to theorize the reading of poetry. He tries to account for both the use and abuse of Reason – for the body and for feeling. If we are only sensuous, we are in complete empiricism and have no self. If we are only intellectual, we are in egotistical solipsism, and we are all self. Beauty is the balanced form of the sensuous and the intellectual (Burke makes a similar mix for love). It takes us to a space between matter and form, feeling and thinking, experience and reason.
How is this political? For Schiller, the individual and the state will parallel each other eventually (or ideally). Either the state imposes this as brutal law or individuals slowly rise to that ideal by a long, slow, reshaping to match state ideology. In a weird way, this maps onto Foucault’s ideas of the contributions of self-fashioning, but it is also creepy and potentially entails brainwashing. Schiller’s ideal swerves dangerously close to Foucault’s concern about the “self-policing” interpellated individual.
It would be interesting to compare Schiller’s ideas to Benjamin’s argument about “aestheticizing politics” (fascism) vs. “politicizing aesthetics” (communism), as well as to Althusser, who argues that art, too, can interpellate the subject through institutions and ISAs. This also reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, which both promises artistic expression as a way of conceiving outside ideology, but also demonstrates the way in which art can be subsumed by ideological structures.