Aesthetic Reflection and the Colonial Event: The Work of Art in the Age of SlaverySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read MPublishing's access and usage policy.
When he finished writing "Of the Standard of Taste" (1757), his seminal essay on the nature of aesthetic judgements, David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, must have been proud of himself. He was certain that he had finally established an unquestionable relationship among the sentiment of beauty, reason, and taste.
Hume was not in doubt about which subjects were capable of the proper judgement of taste: true men of taste were rare, he reminded his readers, but they were "easily distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind." Hume recognized that attempts to fix a standard of taste were subject to some variants, notably individual temperament and different manners, but he was confident that in spite of subjective and temporal differences, the general principles of taste were, in his words, "uniform in human nature."
But did this mean that human nature was a universal category? Could the same general principles of taste apply to colonial subjects - most notably black slaves in the Atlantic world - who were the backbone of the commercial enterprise that had made Britain the dominant world power, and were thus an indispensable part of an economy of debate which was as much about taste as it was about money and credit, property and propriety? Such questions were not troubling Hume when he turned to the question of taste in the 1750s because he had already answered them in an infamous footnote to the second edition of an essay called "Of National Characters" (1742), where he had declared that "negroes. . . and other species of men" were "naturally inferior to the whites."
That Hume could insist on the inferiority of "negroes and other species of men" should not, of course, surprise us. What was remarkable about his footnote is the way in which it proceeded to clarify the terms by which black subjects were excluded from the universe of taste, especially given Hume's desire to establish universal moral and aesthetic judgements. For it is, indeed, noticeable that Hume had not taken the easy way out of this problematic by categorizing the "Negro" as non-human. Negroes and other species of men belonged to the orbit of human nature but in an inferior capacity and this inferiority could be explained by the "original distinction" which nature had made between "these breeds of men." This difference, Hume argued carefully, manifested itself in aesthetic terms - in matters of ingenuity and taste. For wasn't it evident that even those Negroes who had been brought into contact with agencies of civilization and civility were still incapable of self-improvement?
We may be forgiven for asking where Hume, cloistered as he was in Enlightenment Edinburgh, had acquired the evidence for such bold claims. We find the answer in the last sentence of his footnote: "In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly." Since the publication of Hume's footnote in 1742, and Edward Long's monumental History of Jamaica in 1774, Francis Williams, the 18th-century black Jamaican poet, has been the body on which many of the philosophical and cultural issues that dominated the long 18th century have been debated; he has come to function either as the symptom of black achievement or of its failure in areas that were considered essential to subjectivity, civility, and taste.
I have invoked Hume's footnote on Williams in order to make three general points which are going to anchor my discussion. First, colonial events and subjects are never centered in the European discourse on the aesthetic, which dominates the 18th century, but they occupy important footnotes or addenda; if the aesthetic acquires its ideal character by its force of exclusion - its capacity to rescind from contaminating referents or reflective subjects - it is, nevertheless, haunted by that which it excludes which needs to be smuggled in through the footnote or parenthesis. In these circumstances, the terminology in my title - the very presencing of the aesthetic in the same sentence as the colonial event - is intended to invoke a series of familiar oppositions: between the idea of the aesthetic, one of the most privileged and rarified categories in the modern tradition, and the colonial event, considered to be the most banal and corrupt representation of the lebenswelt, the experience of everyday life; between the notion of reflection, which calls attention to fundamental forms of judgment and consciousness, and the event of alterity which is often conceived as a site of crisis, the point at which categories break down and logic is banished from the cognitive faculties.
Second, I am interested in creating a productive confrontation between a set of categories which the critical tradition has worked very hard to separate. For one of the many reasons why the idea of the aesthetic is considered so fundamental to modernity, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham has observed, is because of its identity as "that radiant globe of material objects and attitudes ideally independent of politics, rationality, economics, desire, religion, or ethics."  Whether we approach it from a Kantian perspective - as a critique of the judgement of taste - or from the British tradition exemplified by Hume or Edmund Burke - as the general term for a science of taste - the aesthetic derives much of its authority from its ability to claim autonomy from the historical, social, or cultural event and thus from the consciousness of a sovereign subject. In both cases, the aesthetic gives us access to higher levels of perception and insight precisely because it is not imprisoned in the representam.
Third, the colonial experience would appear to occupy a separate economy of debate than the aesthetic precisely because, unlike the aesthetic, it is incomprehensible except as a spectacle. In its defining moment, colonial culture is only available to us as a crisis - a revolution, a mutiny, a famine. The colonial event enters bourgeois culture in a form which is designed to call into question the very categories the aesthetic holds dear - judgement, disinterest, proportion, and reason. And yet, because of its irrationality, the colonial event demands representation because, as Christopher Morash has noted in Writing the Irish Famine, its factuality is beyond cognition except in a recognizable structure: it is precisely "the unimaginable, indeterminate element - the absence of a stable empirical reality - which makes us constantly aware of the Famine dead whose defining characteristic is their absence." 
The same point can be made about the Indian Mutiny where the desire for a massive and coherent narrative, such as Kaye's six volume History of the Indian Mutiny, makes the act of narration the only means by which a sense of causality can be produced. For this reason, among others, the colonial event cannot be comprehended without the privileging of concepts and categories like causality, narrative, law, etc. Thus, when he comes to write the official history of the Jamaican rebellion of 1876, the English jurist, W. F. Finlason, recognizes that given the excitement caused by "the first agitation, with all its gross exaggerations and its monstrous misconceptions," this colonial event cannot be understood unless we establish certain concepts such as the rule of law - and especially the principle of martial law - as our guiding principle. 
Now we can begin to understand why the aesthetic and the colonial event occupy what appear to be irreconcilable positions in the conceptual schema. Since the end of the 18th century, debates about the aesthetic, especially in the British tradition, have been represented as metropolitan intellectual affairs concerned with the nature and judgement of beauty and explanation of artistic phenomena - and unconcerned with the turbulence associated with the colonial empire. By the same token, the colonial experience had been consigned to the domain of political economy by the beginning of the 19th century. The separation between aesthetics and political economy has been firmly established.
My assumption here is simply that any attempt to separate aesthetic questions from ideological ones was doomed to fail because the two categories were products of the same moment, indeed operated within the same economy of discourse. It is not by accident that the foundational moment of modern colonialism - the 18th century - is also the age of the aesthetic. It is not by accident that some of the people obsessed with questions of the aesthetic in the constitution of modernity in the British tradition were also students of colonialism. And it is certainly not by accident that the most radical attempts to differentiate political economy from the aesthetic emerged from a certain anxiety about their proximity.
And yet the opposition between what Barbara Hernstein Smith once called the "aesthetic axiology" (the study of aesthetic values and value judgements) and political economy has persisted even today, forcing us to ask whether any useful lessons can be learned from smuggling colonialism into debates on the aesthetic and by bringing the economy of taste to bear on our understanding of the colonial event. would like to address these questions by turning to the life and experience of a prominent subject of the United Kingdom who sought to lead the life of the aesthete under the shadow of the colonial event.
The Practice of Taste
In an 18th century in which "writers held up the man of taste as the exemplar of the highest possible level of cultural and social rank," there was no better representative - and practitioner - of the ideals which we have come to associate with the notion of the aesthetic than William Beckford .He had all the things on which a modern subjectivity depended - money, rank, and taste. Beckford's father, popularly known as the Alderman, had inherited a massive fortune from his own father and used it to climb to some of the highest social and political ranks of English society. He served as an alderman and sheriff for the city of London, and was twice Lord Mayor of the metropolis before entering the House of Commons. The Alderman fathered at least 30 children, but William was his only legitimate child and - ostensibly - his sole heir.
Clearly, young William was born with the biggest silver spoon in the kingdom. When he was baptized in the parish church at Fonthill Gifford near the family estate in 1760, the younger Beckford was surrounded by the best society in England. His godfather was none other than William Pitt, the Elder. William Pitt the Younger, later prime minister and statesman, was Beckford's playmate.
Most importantly, his education and experiences were deliberately programmed to actualize many of the theories about manners, culture, and taste circulating in Britain at the time. William's first drawing lessons were supposed to have been conducted by Sir William Chambers, founder of the Royal Society of Architects, and drawing master for George III when he was Prince of Wales. When a nine-year-old music genius named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed through England in 1765, William Beckford, then five years old, but equally talented, had a chance to play a tune or two for the child prodigy from Vienna. Indeed, Beckford would die insisting that he was the one who produced "Non piu andrai," the famous aria in The Marriage of Figaro.
In addition, Beckford made many grand tours through Europe - Italy, Spain and Portugal, Turkey and Egypt. He found himself in Paris several times in the hot days of the French Revolution and, in the words of one of his biographers, was "lured by the thought of the spoils he might pick up in the glittering debris left in the wake of revolution."  Many of Beckford's precious pieces of art and furniture were bought on the cheap from a fleeing French aristocracy, but to the extent that he had spent most of his money acquiring the best in European art and decor, the following epitaph of Beckford by The Times of London in1822 was right on the mark: "He was one of the few possessors of great wealth who have honestly tried to spend it poetically."
But there was another side to William Beckford, one that should be of interest to students of the aesthetic in the British tradition. Behind the mask of taste and civility, Beckford's life was haunted by what I will here call the ghost of colonialism past. For the foundation of the Beckford wealth - that is, the condition of possibility of young William's ability to live the poetic life - was to be found in a colonial elsewhere: in several Jamaican plantations, in a typical 18th-century complexion of sugar and slaves. Indeed, neither the modernity of William Beckford, nor his desire to make the aesthetic the code of his life - the practice that would validate his status - could have been possible without colonial holdings and the political and moral economy they generated.
Consider this background: when he left Britain for Jamaica in 1643, William Beckford's great grandfather, Peter Beckford, was the impoverished son of a Clerkenwell cloth worker. But taking advantage of the opportunities proffered by the colonial space - and also the revolution which new rules of property had triggered in the British economy - Peter Beckford had acquired enough land and slaves to become a member of the white Creole oligarchy in Jamaica, rising to be president of the Council under Charles II and lieutenant governor and commander in chief under William III. By the time of his death, Fothergill notes, Peter Beckford had amassed what was considered to be "one of the greatest fortunes to come out of Jamaica in an age when to have a vast commercial fortune one must either be a Nabob from India or a sugar king from the West Indies" (Fothergill, 16).
Beckford's father, the Alderman, had been born in Jamaica and he didn't seem particularly interested in concealing this background, even as he set out to occupy prestigious cultural and political positions in the metropolis. It was left to his son to repress this colonial background, and in the process to embrace the life of the aesthete not simply as the only way he could enter high society, but also as an instrument of reconciling two of the great antinomies of 18th-century culture - commerce and taste.
I want to suggest that the two narratives of Beckford's life - the presencing of good taste and the repression of a white Creole culture which was considered to be corrupt by any standards of the time - can help us resolve some of the problems that have come to plague contemporary discussions on the relation between "the aesthetic axiology" and political economy. I want to argue further that the colonial event which practitioners of taste, such as Beckford, had tried to exorcise out of their system was what had necessitated the chasm between the aesthetic and commerce in the first place and therefore needs to be read as the symptom that enables us to understand the repressed connection between the value of art and economic value.
The theoretical problems we face here can be explicated more systematically in at least two ways. The first one is to recall that white Creoles in the Americas needed the aesthetic because they couldn't claim a civic humanism derived, as Lord Shaftesbury suggested, from the ethics of the aristocracy. In spite of the veneer of upper class sensibility, such men were indeed typical bourgeois subjects. As such they were at the center of a difficult intellectual project whose goal was "to figure the values of commerce into a new ordering of the social, cultural, and political" (de Bolla, 104). As de Bolla also notes, values of trade and commerce "brought great tension to bear upon the hierarchical stratification of society and began to effect alterations within the orders of discourse"(104). The problem, however, was that the men whose money was driving and altering the order of society and discourse were seen as inherently incapable of virtue and good taste. Mainstream British intellectual opinion tended to associate commerce with corruption and excess; white Creoles and Nabobs epitomized the corruption of taste and virtue. I am suggesting, then, that Beckford's aesthetic practice was part of an almost impossible project: the cultivation of an aesthetic self as a mode of controlling the excess associated with white creolity.
The second point to keep in mind here concerns the function of the aesthetic as a figure of mediation: if we accept the argument presented by theorists as diverse as Terry Eagleton, Mary Poovey, and John Guillory, that aesthetic reflection acquires its status and authority in the process of mediating the new order of commerce, how could it go about performing this task while maintaining its autonomy and disinterestedness? Terry Eagleton's response to this question has been the most influential. Eagleton argues, with specific reference to the British civic tradition, that bourgeois society found its way out of the commerce/virtue split by aestheticizing "social life":
The aesthetic is in this sense no more than a name for the political unconscious: it is simply the way social harmony registers itself on our senses, imprints itself on our sensibilities. The beautiful is just political order lived out on the body, the way it strikes the eye and stirs the heart ... The socially disruptive, by contrast, is as instantly offensive as a foul smell. The unity of life sustains itself, requiring no further legitimation, anchored as it is in our most primordial instincts. 
William Beckford's example calls into question at least two of the assumptions Eagleton makes: first, the aesthetic itself was not the political unconscious; this status needs to be reserved for the history and material culture that had to be repressed so that one could live out the aesthetic life without ideological baggage. This history and culture is part of that discursive formation I am calling the colonial event and the modes of social life associated with it. For if we were to detour to the more dramatic moments of colonial crisis - the famine, the mutiny, the rebellion - what we discover is a cultural project that was calling into question all the rules of aristocratic culture and was promoting the bourgeois alternative. In other words, the aesthetic needed to be distanced from colonial culture so that the new order of society and its defining categories - civility, art, and virtue - could be autonomized and thus be freed from the violent, uncivil, and perhaps unpleasurable events that had enabled the ideal claims of modernity.
There is a second area in which Beckford's practice of aesthetic theory challenges Eagleton's conclusion; surrounded or enmeshed in the "foul smell" of the forces the aesthetic was supposed to contain, subjects like Beckford needed to rationalize and legitimize their social life. The fact that the new commercial class could not anchor their social life in "primordial instincts" was particularly true for white Creoles and Nabobs in Georgian Britain. My thesis, then, is that the ideology of the aesthetic had a dual function: it had to establish a disinterested interest in order to control or repress a set of socially disruptive experiences; but it also needed to claim a certain degree of instrumentality if it was to perform its legitimating function. Let us return to William Beckford for clarification.
The Containment of the Aesthetic Object
Beckford is now remembered for his "social excesses" and for his failure to control the "socially disruptive" forces that threatened his cherished desire to master civic virtue as defined by late 18th-century culture. What I would like to reflect on here, however, are certain figures of disruption which are written into what appears to be the ordered life of the aesthetic. I want to argue that even as he set out to launder commerce into art, and thus to transform immoral Creole money into virtuous signs, Beckford could not escape from what appears to be the contradictory impulse inherent in commerce and virtue, an impulse which also signifies their conjoining, their mutual imbrication and contamination. The extravagance which only Creole money could enable was to meet the masterpieces of European art in Fonthill Abbey, the tower of learning which Beckford built on his family's estate in the 1790s.
Let me retrace my steps for a moment. William Beckford's Jamaican-born father, the Alderman, had signified his moment of arrival into the culture of 18th-century Englishness by building a huge Palladian palace in 1755. The house, called Fonthill Splendens, provides us with an important clue to young William Beckford's location inside and outside the culture of Englishness. It is important to remember that the Alderman's choice of a Palladian style was his way of claiming his English identity, for after the failed Jacobite uprising in 1715, and the resulting hostility toward Catholicism and things deemed Catholic, architecture, like other forms of art, came to function as an expression of the idea of Britain as a Protestant nation. The "extravagant and exaggerated architecture" associated with Catholicism was now out of fashion, replaced by controlled and proportional systems of design. Despite its size and majesty, Fonthill Splendens was intended to be a model of proportion and Protestant restraint! Its exterior would locate it within the Palladian tradition.
However, the inside of Fonthill had a distinctively un-Protestant quality to it; James Lees-Milne quotes a contemporary observer who was struck by the extravagance of the interiors, the "touches of vulgarity" and "the appearance of riches almost tawdrily exhibited."  This was clearly a house built on Creole money and the owner seemed keen to display this fact. If the exterior of the house celebrated the new patriotic Protestant style, its interior was unabashedly Orientalist, complete with an entrance known as the Egyptian Hall and a Turkish Room. But perhaps the most original aspect of Fonthills was its setting "at the bottom of a wooded valley on the west margin of an artificial lake, complete with bridge, grotto and unique boathouse, apsed and aisled like a rococo basilica in miniature" (Lees-Milne, 13). In this setting, the Alderman had simultaneously attempted to capture the ideal of the garden as a sign of what Horace Walpole called "the English Constitution" and to recapture the landscape of the Jamaican great house of the white planters.
William Beckford, however, summoned the preeminent architect Sir James Wyatt to create something quite different at Fonthill Abbey in the 1790s. Fonthill Abbey was to become a living monument to the nature of English Gothic and it is in its Gothicness that it is now read as an affront to the whole discourse on the ordering of the arts which had dominated the 18th century. Defined against the Protestantism associated with English Palladianism, Fonthill Abbey was designed to resemble what Lees-Milne has aptly called "a Catholic cathedral in Protestant England" (44). It was a sign of defiance from a person who had worked hard to become an Englishman of taste but had been rejected by the culture into which he had poured his wealth and fortune. In these circumstances, the journey from the Palladianism of the father to the Gothicism of the son is a symptom of the changes which were taking place as the dominant idea of the aesthetic - good taste, judgement, proportion, and control - began to collapse under its own strains.
Many critics were to complain that the Abbey had no utilitarian function, let alone taste; architectural historians derided "its scale as the vulgar concept of an eccentric millionaire not quite in his right senses" (Lees-Milne, 49). But these critics were the ones who were still attached to aesthetic ideals which were, by the 1790s, being called into question by colonial events, most notably the American and Haitian Revolutions. My more immediate interest is in the implication of Beckford's inability to sustain the aesthetic normativity of the 18th century. I am particularly eager to understand how his money - as much as his displacement - provided architects and artists trying to escape from the older aesthetic ideology incredible opportunities to experiment with new forms of design and representation. For Wyatt, who was trying to master the Gothic form, Beckford's commission provided a space for experimentation: Fonthill Abbey has in fact come to be viewed as the manifest sign of his "genius and his failings." 
We can see the radicalness of Wyatt's Gothic design for Fonthill Abbey. The emphasis was on the irregularity of form and provocative allegory: the house was planned on an irregular cross with a cluster of turrets and gables and an octagon steeple. Fonthill Abbey wore its religious character defiantly and exhibited its Catholicism in the very heart of Anglicanism.
But what does all this have to do with the colonial event? I want to consider here the relationship between the use of art - or rather its collection - and questions of colonial subjectivity. Imagine Beckford's situation in 1799: despite his education and mastery of the economy of taste he had failed in all his efforts to be accepted by the English establishment. Beckford's colonial origins were used to frustrate all his efforts to acquire gentility. At the same time, the plantation economy which had enabled the Beckfords' rise to power in the first place was in convulsion, faced by the twin forces of revolution and emancipation.
It is at this point that Beckford built his abbey as a monument to art. The role he was to adopt now was not that of the consummate aesthete, but of the art collector; art was there not so much to be enjoyed, but to be possessed because in its possession one could push the logic of aesthetic reflection to its limits. As he sat in his abbey, lonely and melancholic, Beckford could embrace his pictures as supplements for the lost slaves, sugar and elusive gentility. He could content himself with the fact that what he had on his walls was the best collection of art in private hands in the whole of Europe: work by masters such as Bellini, van der Weyden, Perugino; paintings by Rembrandt and Ruben, van Dyck, van Eyck, and Velazquez. This is what a little mixture of slaves and sugar could buy. Slavery and sugar were nasty things, but distanced from their home ground in the Atlantic, they could be laundered into good art.
But my interest here is not the connection between bad money and good art. I am more interested in the way colonial anxieties - associated as much with commerce as with uncertain subjectivities - generated the need for the planter class to cultivate art and aesthetic values. The easiest way I can make this argument is to suggest that art was Beckford's way of dealing with what one of his biographers has called his "displaced anxiety" and "sense of inadequacy." For if the cultivation of artistic sensibility could not make him worthy of good society and give him the genealogy he did not have, at least he could buy the damn stuff and thus put his mark on it.
My interest, then, is on the instrumental use of art as the counterpoint to established notions of aesthetic reflection. I want to focus not so much on how Beckford failed to live up to the ideals of aesthetic reflection, but on the ways in which his colonial anxieties and inadequacies explain the shift from the aesthetic sensibility, which had marked his education and youth, to the collection of art as the condition of possibility of a Creole identity. Because Beckford's anxieties emerged out of his repressed Creole background, they have to be read within the paradoxical matrix which I have already hinted at; the only people who had the money to live the aesthetic life were quite removed from what I will call "pure whiteness."
What do I mean by this? Remember that if there was anything that united the major theoreticians of the aesthetic - British and continental European - it was the fundamental belief that blacks were out of the orbit of aesthetic judgment. This point is well established. What is not yet clearly articulated is how white Creoles, while not overtly banished from the rules of aesthetic judgement, were implicitly excluded from the logic of pure whiteness on which this judgement was predicated. After all, what made a white person Creole was the suspicion of miscegenation. The most obvious symptom of the black contamination of the white Creole, as countless observers of the Caribbean scene observed, was in their manners and language. Beckford's Abbey marked the "not quite white" subjects' attempt to literally possess and contain the high culture which had marked them as different. Fonthill Abbey sought, in its monumentality, to affirm the identity of its owner as the "controlling and finalizing energy" behind the aesthetic order. 
The Abbey was a site where the idea of the work of art as the mark of subjectivity would be evacuated from the economy of debate and be allowed to atrophy now that the political system that sustained it had collapsed. The only proof that Beckford was a man of taste, noted William Hazlitt angrily in a review of the collection at Fonthill Abbey, "is his getting rid of it" (Alexander, 248). This was perhaps the ultimate revenge of the white Creole, a revenge prompted by the realization that in spite of all his efforts at mastering the culture of taste, Beckford could not escape from his Creole heritage and all that it involved. Beckford used to say that one of his ancestor's had been a signatory to the Magna Carta, but for many of the people who flocked to buy his pictures when his collection was auctioned off in 1822, he remained an eccentric millionaire and a Jamaican slave driver. The boundary that divided the economy of taste from the culture of slavery was also the paradigm that conjoined them.
Simon Gikandi is a faculty member in the Department of English. His most recent book is Maps of Englishness(Columbia, 1997). The following is an excerpt from a paper delivered at the symposium Coloni Contexts: Indians, Irish, and Others, sponsored by the Program in British Studies,Winter 1997.
Beckford's homosexuality, which was used against him to ruin his political aspirations, also haunted him. It is important to consider Beckford's sexuality as an important part of his identity formation and negotiation, but this is beyond the scope of this paper.
The terms are borrowed from Jean Starobinski's examination of strikingly similar monuments to art in the French Revolution; see 1789: The Emblems of Reason, trans. Barbara Bray (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982) 91.