Although it is usually the end of the eighteenth century that monopolizes the discussion of aesthetics in philosophy, it is a book from the beginning of the century – Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, etc. – that shaped the terms in which art was discussed by Enlightenment philosophes. In the same sense in which an allergen shapes a sneeze, it is also these terms that shaped the massive rejection under which we still live – that reaction we call modernism, romanticism, postmodernism, etc.
Shaftesbury did not directly talk about entertainment and art, because the concepts and their hostility one to the other had not crystallized in his time. But he does give us some notion about what art was about. Or, rather, he constructs two points of view by which to look at it.
From the first point of view, art is thoroughly social. Shaftesbury writes of how the poet’s work is an “entertainment for himself and others.” The possibility that it could only be for himself is cast into doubt, however, by the whole structure of his theory of taste.
Our … endeavor, therefore, must appear this: to show that nothing is found charming or delightful in the polite world, nothing which is adopted as pleasure or entertainment of whatever kind can any way be accounted for, supported or established wiouth the pre-establishment or supposition a a certain taste.”
The separation between pleasures and entertainment is about Shaftesbury’s recognition that much of entertainment is about the “foils and contraries” that befall human actors, whether in poetry, or theater, or song, or visuall depiction. However, for Shaftesbury, the moments of degredation, pain, grief and defeat – of, in fact, ugliness, the lineaments of unhappiness - are moments in a larger scheme to depict, in full, the “beauties of the inward soul.”
This gives us our second point of view. Shaftesbury is not a puritan by any means, but he still harks after, or at least is haunted by, the old distinction between the sacred and the profane – which is now transferred to a the duality between outward show and inward beauty. If the artist is always working with the materials of outward show, he is always motivated by the impulse of inward beauty.
The model for inward beauty comes not from art: it comes from the beauty of the human form. And not any human form – rather, the paradigm is the beautiful woman. That beauty, Shaftesbury claims, is always a symbol of inward beauty. Subtract the latter, make the woman an idiot, and the outward beauty flees.
We know how this play of comparisons arises. We’ve seen this number dialed before, over and over again. Bit by bit, entertainment – like the beauty of women – becomes a threat if it is not moralized, or held to some standard. But for Shaftesbury, entertainment is still, in the end, the kind of outward show that art does not transcend so much as use for a transcendence beyond art – into being a wholly fit member of society.
Shaftesbury’s aesthetics of taste made a good target for those who reject the surrender to taste as an ultimately servile gesture, a relic of the system of patronage. Those, that is, who were contemporary with or came after the French revolution.
It is at this point that the plot thickens; the divide, such as it is, between entertainment and art becomes a modern project.