The Aesthetic Dimension  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics is a book by German born philosopher Herbert Marcuse which was published in 1978. Written on the subject of aesthetics, the book explicates Marcuse's account of modern art's political implications and relationship with society at large.

It is the final major work by Marcuse, best known as a founding member of the Frankfurt School. The book is also noteworthy as a demarcation of his split with Marxism via his rejection of Marxist aesthetics.


The Aesthetic Dimension (not to be confused with a chapter from Marcuse's Eros and Civilization of the same name) is a response to previous writings within critical theory on the subject of art, notably those of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Marcuse rejects Benjamin's call in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for the politicization (i.e., a literal reflection of perceived political realities) of modern, reproducible art to both reflect the state of a society and incite change. Like both Benjamin and Adorno, Marcuse feels that art promises resistance to societal repression, and that a cultural revolution is necessarily connected to a political and/or social revolution. Adorno (as represented mainly by his posthumous Aesthetic Theory) and Marcuse agree that this possibility must be realized through artistic detachment and symbolism, but Marcuse offers a more inclusive and less radical suggestion for modern art's source of power than does Adorno, who believes the works of high culture to be the sole source of potential artistic emancipation.

Marcuse instead points to what he perceives to be the successes of high culture and translates these to all areas of art. For Marcuse, art's promise of transcendence can only be fulfilled via a conceptual independence from society, but this independence is accessible through a host of media. The successful artist will attain truth in his work through detachment that results in symbolic representation. This successful art must necessarily invoke a longing for something utopian and the promise of ultimate happiness represented by beauty. This symbolic longing for fulfillment will awaken us from complacency.

Marcuse states in the book's introduction that he considers literature the primary source of his influence for this system, but feels that the ideas would apply to music and plastic arts as well.

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