The Public Sphere & Aesthetics

On Tuesday, we discussed the public sphere and where aesthetics falls into it – and in which way it does. We heavily discussed Michael Warner’s essay on publics – which is an interesting, albeit, difficult topic. Warner makes an argument to differentiate between the public and a public. According to Warner, the public is the general population; social totality. A public is a bit more complex. A public is made up of strangers; an undefined group. It is self organized, a social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse (print culture).

Ok, so what, right? Where does aesthetics and art criticism fall into this, and why is it important?

We often think of aesthetics as concerned with nature and the appreciation of beauty; especially in art. However, looking back, we see aesthetics as the product of hegemony; formed through a power structure. In 18th century France, King Louie XIV decided he wanted to monopolize the “best” artistic talent and place it under state control. In doing this, the state was essentially deciding what the publics view of art was, and what constituted “good” art. King Louie XIV decides to hold “Salons” to showcase this academic perfection he had acquired. Interestingly, in doing this, King Louie XIV created a public. People began attending these Salon’s and what came of them was discourse. Debates and opinions were being expressed and lo and behold! art criticism begins to be written. The thing with a public is you can’t know the nature of what it will be. It is composed of strangers, which is a critical and undefinable aspect of it.

This idea of publics sheds a new light on the concept of art criticism. It highlights certain aspects we should keep in mind when approaching art criticism, and who our public is.

-Hannah Jones




  1. I concur with Hannah in needing to know who our public is and how to go about directing what it is we try to say in a public sphere. I too thought this subject went a little bit over my head in trying to differentiate but what really perked up my ears was when our topic merged into counterpublics. I love how they conflict with societal norms within the same environment of a public and the public. I truly think counterpublics are needed within society to create a sort of chaotic balance and shake up our feelings and get us thinking. The example used in class with the Sex Pistols is a very impactful way of showing that subcultures, though they may be more underground or “not popular”, can still have an effect on society. I think there’s something to be said for this kind of “Damn the man” kind of attitude.



  2. I also agree with Hannah in that as art critics or even just appreciators of art itself, it’s important to know who and what the public is. Knowing what group of people you are trying to get your opinion across to helps shape your writing and even yourself as an individual. I find it interesting as well that art criticism was sort of ‘born’ from people having discourse about which art was superior than others. And I agree with Kellye’s point that counterpublics are important to a society because if everyone just agreed on the same things, then there would be no improvement or originality. Disagreements/opposing opinions are important because they bring about new perspectives and ideas, and create a population of thinkers. When there are more open-minded and well rounded people, it provides grounds for innovation and change. It helps to know that your public is one that can read your writing and agree/disagree with it respectively, as well as come away from it with new perspectives.



  3. It’s safe to say I was thoroughly confused in this lecture about the difference between the public and a public. Honestly I felt like I was getting more confused as we went on since multiple people had opinions and there didn’t seem to be a clear “this one is right and this one is wrong.” I was getting lost in what the relevance was. I appreciate the fact that in your post you bring the relevance of publics back to the subject of the class, art criticism. When a public is created, like what happened with King Louie XIV, it allows criticism to be created. I might not fully grasp this concept, but I see how it connects to how criticsm comes from multiple people and discussion between them.



  4. There was a lot of content from that class on the public and it was heavy in terms of understanding just where it came from as well as how it is defined and perceived. I found this lesson a little difficult to wrap my head around because the public is, as you mentioned, produced by discourse therefore it’s an area of grey in a space of black and white. It is the counter part, yet an in between for what will come next.

    I also agree with it’s undefinable nature. It is in part because we as humans think differently and don’t all find the same type of art to be appealing such as King Louis XIV sought after with his version of perfect art.


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