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Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp.

3650, 2012

Debating Latin American Aesthetic Theory. Beatriz Sarlo on the Autonomy of Art
ANNA POPOVITCH
Columbia University, USA

For quite some time, Beatriz Sarlo has been at the forefront of the debate over the possibility of ascertaining the aesthetic value of art. The Argentine critics dismissal of value-neutral approaches to art has been often criticised as a repackaging of the aestheticist tradition inherited from the European Enlightenment. Using Sarlos own critical practice a selection of Sarlos key texts on Argentine literature written since 1980 as a testing ground for her theoretical insights I argue in favour of re-evaluating Sarlos project as an aporetic discourse with positive implications for cultural politics that should be rened rather than abandoned. Keywords: aesthetics theory, Argentina, cultural politics, literature, relativism, Sarlo.

Ever since Latin American cultural studies gained prominence in the academy of the United States, Beatriz Sarlo, a renowned Argentine intellectual, has been at the forefront of the debate over the possibility of ascertaining the aesthetic value of art. The controversy has often been staged as a quarrel between, on the one hand, literary critics shaped by the aestheticist tradition of the European Enlightenment, and, on the other, worldwide advocates of cultural studies averse to essentialist deliberations on art (Moreiras, 1999: 133; Sarlo, 1999: 122). Alternatively, the debate has been presented as a clash between proponents of cultural critique developed in Latin America (such as Sarlo), and US-based practitioners of Latin American cultural studies. This latter group has included Alberto Moreiras, John Beverley and Gabriela Nouzeilles, among others. (For a discussion of the differences between Latin American cultural critique, Britain-based and US-based Latin American cultural studies, as well as of the productivity of the meta-theoretical current concerned with geopolitics of knowledge see Jeff Browitts (2004) (Un)common Ground? A Comparative Genealogy of British and Latin American Cultural Studies. Abril Trigos (2000) article Why Do I Do Cultural Studies? and Julio Ramoss (2001) essay Hemispheric Domains: 1898 and the Origins of Latin Americanism also address the question of whether competing epistemological frameworks of Anglo-American and Latin American cultural criticism are susceptible to the politics of location). The controversy can be summarised in the following terms. In her post-1980 writings, divested of the combative spirit that characterised her earlier work, Beatriz Sarlo has
2011 The Author. Bulletin of Latin American Research 2011 Society for Latin American Studies. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

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advocated the recovery of an autonomist stance toward aesthetics, according to which art has intrinsic value. In contrast, in her lesser known pre-1980 writings, including book reviews and articles published in Punto de Vistas militant predecessor Los Libros (19691976) on the eve of the 1976 military coup, Sarlo previously regarded art in utilitarian terms, according to which art should serve as a vehicle for revolutionary change. As part of her earlier view, Sarlo came increasingly to appreciate the signicance of ideologically transparent, consciousness-raising art. This ultra-left view of aesthetics was shared by many Argentine intellectuals of the New Left generation, many of whom had committed themselves to socialism. After Argentinas transition to democracy in the early 1980s the period, as Sarlo has described it, of her intellectual rebirth Sarlo explicitly repudiated her previous treatment of art as an ethical regime, according to which the epistemic and ideological function of a work of art takes precedence over its aesthetic value (Sarlo, 2007a: 12; for an account of this period, including Sarlos collaboration with Los Libros, see Popovitch, 2009). At the same time, positioning herself against institutional theories of art such as, for example, the sociology of art developed by Pierre Bourdieu, and the Marxist form of Cultural Studies institutionalised in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s Sarlo has argued that value-neutral approaches to literature and art are poorly equipped to confront the challenges presented by the neoliberal reorganisation of cultural production (Sarlo, 1994a, 1997). In her well-known article Los estudios y la crtica literaria en la encrucijada valorativa (1997), published in English under the title Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism at the Crossroads of Values (1999), Sarlo argued that the anthropological and sociological acid deployed by Cultural Studies installed relativism at the heart of cultural analysis by downplaying the ontological difference between art and other types of cultural forms (Sarlo, 1999: 29). Urging her readers to treat literature as an autonomous enclave of cultural production in her post-1980 writings, Sarlo has sought to emphasise the specicity of literary discourse by noting that it is literatures formal and semantic density (Sarlo, 1994a: 27) that constitutes it as a unique kind of signifying procedure: If we cannot see the difference between a Brazilian music video made for MTV and Caetano Veloso, we will be mistaken. If we cannot see a difference between Silvina Ocampo and Laura Esquivel, we will be mistaken: in all these cases there is a formal and semantic difference which should be discerned through perspectives which are not always those of cultural studies. Silvina Ocampo is different from Laura Esquivel even if one admits that Esquivels ideas about women are politically correct. They are different because there is an extra in Ocampo that is totally absent in Esquivel. Art is about this something extra . . . . (Sarlo, 1999: 123) Sarlo argues that literature is a specialised dimension of culture that cannot be adequately appreciated without the help of a unique set of analytical tools traditionally provided by literary studies. She warns against the dispersion of literary criticism within anthropologically oriented cultural studies, holding that cultural studies too often remains blind to the question of what confers value upon literature, and by extension art. According to Sarlo, the question of what constitutes the distinguishing mark of aesthetic experience cannot be ignored without signicant loss; moreover, cultural criticism must once again tackle the question of [aesthetic] values because the great public debate today revolves around values, and the basis of a politics that takes them into account (Sarlo, 1999: 119123).
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Sarlos effort to place the question of literatures aesthetic value at the centre of Latin American cultural studies has been often dismissed as an old-fashioned agenda. Critics suggest that her approach has become overly dependent upon the obsolete presuppositions of post-Enlightenment approaches to art, including formalist theories of art. Counted among these critics are a number of renowned Latin Americanists, including (but not limited to) US-based scholars and frequent contributors to the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. For example, in Alberto Moreirass view, Sarlos value argument belongs to the residual discourse on art inherited from the European Enlightenment. He argues that the European Enlightenment was a period during which literary and art criticism was centred on the subjects experience of beauty and was articulated with the help of the core concepts of autonomous form and disinterested contemplation. During such a period reection on art and literature played an important role both in the construction of the public sphere and in the consolidation of the modern nation state. In Moreirass view, if there is any reality behind all the talk about the relative weakening of the nation-state and the disappearance of the national-popular state and its replacement by a transnational regime of capital . . . a debate on values could never generate the possibility of a thinking attuned to the conditions of our present . . . because it would always already be hopelessly entangled in the ontological historicity of the European past and of its planetary epiphenomena. (Moreiras, 1999: 133134, 2001: 252253) In a similar vein, Gabriela Nouzeilles has argued that Sarlos nostalgia for the liberal past evident in her endorsement of the enlightened intellectual [and] her celebration of the aesthetic project of the avant-garde is not constructive and that a new approach to the appraisal of art and literature should be developed (Nouzeilles, 2001: 3; the Chilean art critic Nelly Richard has advanced a similar argument against Sarlo (Richard, 2007: 91)). Other inuential critics, including John Beverley, have argued that Sarlos defence of arts autonomy, reminiscent of Adornos celebration of high modernism as a critical alternative to the reied products manufactured by the culture industry, is not attuned to the cultural realities brought about by globalisation (Beverley, 1996: 466); also see Nouzeilles, 2001: 3). In an attempt to clarify the terms of the debate surrounding Beatriz Sarlos writings, I survey a selection of Sarlos key post-1980 texts on Argentine literature, in order to address the following questions: a) What exactly does Sarlos discourse on aesthetic value amount to?; b) Does Sarlos project resemble formalist theories of art derived from the disinterest thesis advanced during the European Enlightenment? (By the disinterest thesis, I refer, in particular, to Shelleys account the thesis that pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested and that, consequently, an aesthetic attitude, contrary to a practical judgment of taste, isolates the object and focuses on its formal properties (Shelley, 2009)); and c) If artistic formalism is dened as the view that the artistically relevant properties of an artwork are the properties in virtue of which it is an artwork and in virtue of which it is a good or bad one (Shelley, 2009), does Sarlos appreciation of arts formal and semantic density imply the view that some artworks are better than others? In other words, does Sarlos attribution of aesthetic value to a text on the basis of its formal and semantic properties entail a normative agenda implicit in many formalist theories of art?; and (d) Is Sarlos defence of arts autonomy a variant of Theodor Adornos mass culture criticism? In their famous essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Adorno and

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Horkeimer articulated a gloomy vision of mass culture as a commodied sphere of cultural production created by the for-prot monopoly industry of late capitalism. According to the German philosopher, commercial movies, photography, soap operas, popular music and other manifestations of standardised mass culture are degenerate cultural forms that numb the spectators critical faculties by encouraging the passive consumption of routinised products. On the contrary, real art a self-conscious practice uncontaminated by the culture industry functions as social critique and fosters sustained thought, spontaneity and imagination (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002: 100). Is Sarlos vision of art identical to Adornos pessimistic assessment of the culture industry, as Sarlos critics have argued? More specically, does Adornos rigid distinction between self-critical high art and degenerate mass culture gure in Sarlos writings? Against Sarlos critics, I will argue that Sarlos project cannot be reduced to either one of the aforementioned positions. I demonstrate how Sarlo walks a tenuous line between formalist and institutional theories of art, and how this liminal endeavour is both legitimate and desirable if anchored in cultural politics. Institutional theories of art maintain that what makes something a work of art is not a property of the artefact itself but rather the institutional consensus of the artworld. This view implies a value-neutral approach to art, according to which the classicatory sense of art is supposed to be a non-evaluative use of the term art that picks out a thing of a certain kind without thereby attributing to it any value (or disvalue) (Yanal, 1998: 509). I do not hold, however, that Sarlo is able to resolve the tension between these two approaches in a philosophically satisfactory manner, showing instead that the value of her work is in the manner in which she stages the dispute. Although much has been written on Sarlos views on art in the form of brief commentary, book reviews, and criticism of Sarlos scattered pronouncements on the subject in select theoretical essays there have been few attempts to carry out a systematic analysis of Sarlos theoretical discourse on art against the backdrop of her critical practice. Using Sarlos theoretical essays and surveys of Argentine cultural history, Claudio E. Benzecry has reconstructed Sarlos theory of popular culture in Beatriz Sarlo and Theories of Popular Culture (Benzecry, 2002). However, to my knowledge, there has been no attempt to undertake a systematic analysis of Sarlos aesthetic theory. The present article aims to ll this gap in scholarship on Sarlo. In particular, I approach Sarlos work by foregrounding the sense in which she is simultaneously an art theorist and an art critic, and I thus use Sarlos own critical practice as a testing ground for her theoretical insights. Acknowledging that Sarlos research is eclectic, I rst raise the question of whether different types of text, implicitly or explicitly valorised by Sarlo from diverse methodological standpoints, lend themselves to an evaluation in terms of the formal and semantic density criterion singled out by Sarlo in her theoretical writings (Sarlo, 1994a: 27). I then identify some of the philosophical problems implicit in Sarlos quasi-aestheticist project, arguing for a view of the critics stance on aesthetic value as an aporetic discourse with positive pragmatic implications that should be rened rather than abandoned. In order to test Sarlos theoretical claims on aesthetic value against her own evaluative accounts of Argentine literature, I have selected three of Sarlos well-known studies, whose distinct methods of inquiry are uniquely suited to the analysis of their respective research objects. El Imperio de los sentimientos. Narraciones de circulacion en la Argentina (19171927) ((The Empire of Sentiments) 1985), periodica an exercise in historical sociology, analyses works of popular culture produced en masse
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in early twentieth-century Argentina. Una modernidad perif erica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930 ((Buenos Aires: A Peripheral Modernity) 1988) is a survey of Buenos Aires cultural history that explores the onset of peripheral modernity, including the development of the Argentine literary avant-garde. Escritos sobre literatura argentina ((Essays on Argentine Literature) 2007a) an eclectic collection of short reviews of predominantly high-brow works of literature that Sarlo considers aesthetically appealing is a rich source for analysing Sarlos own literary preferences over the past 30 years.

Sarlo, the Cultural Critic


Although at different points in time Beatriz Sarlo has denounced sociologists of art for encouraging value relativism, it could be argued that Sarlos own post-1980 work, much of which has been carried out from a socio-historical angle, exemplies the difculty of formulating a uniform approach to the evaluation of artistic products. Sarlos The Empire of Sentiments, a study of serial sentimental novels published in Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century, privileges a sociological approach to the low-brow substratum of Argentine literary culture. The book is prefaced with a disclaimer in which Sarlo announces her intention to avoid either a celebratory or an elitist approach to her object of research, in order to reconstruct the extent of the narratives impact on its readership, and to elucidate the nature of the publics affective attachment to sentimental novels. Indeed, the authors overview of the genre a survey of the writers, audiences, reading protocols, and ideological effects associated with the process of production and consumption of the sentimental novel is for the most part dispassionate. We learn that the texts in question enjoyed a wide middle-class and working-class readership. As works of docile literature aimed at rapid gratication, these pulp novels contained repetitive plots centred on the theme of amorous passion, predictable endings, and abundant stylistic clich es (Sarlo, 2000: 27). Steeped in the rhetoric of sentimentalism, these narratives projected a fantasy of social ascent, inviting the readers to daydream and to escape the infelicitous aspects of their lives. Although Sarlo herself is not impressed by the genres mediocre poetics, she brackets her personal opinion from her analysis of the texts use value. What is important from a sociological viewpoint is the fact that the entertainment and pedagogical potential of such works was productively exploited by the target audiences: inducan el habito estas narraciones mediocres no solo de lectura y pro porcionaban un modico nivel de placer, sino que integraban un corpus literario con el cual se poda practicar destrezas y adquirir habitos culturales . . . . (Sarlo, 2000: 227228) (aside from inducing the habit of reading and affording a modest degree of pleasure, these mediocre narratives comprised a literary corpus that could be used to develop dexterity and acquire cultural habits . . .). (All translations, in parenthesis, are mine) In her study of the early twentieth-century Argentine avant-garde Buenos Aires: A Peripheral Modernity, Sarlo similarly adopts a sociological approach to literature, reminiscent of Bourdieus institutional theory of art. The book paints a dynamic picture of the impact produced on the development of the River Plate literary culture by the demographic, socio-economic, and technological changes experienced by Argentina at the

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turn of the century. Among other things, the study explores the distinctive features of the Argentine avant-garde by placing it in relation to literary trends that preceded and were contemporaneous with it. Sarlo analyses how social differentiation, enhanced by the modication of the nations ethnic and class structure, shaped coexisting, and often competing, fractions of the avant-garde milieu. A signicant portion of the study is devoted to an examination of middle-brow works written by authors not belonging to Argentine lettered elites, but who were recognised subsequently as avant-garde writers. Sarlo observes that the unprecedented explosion of the immigrant population, the expansion of education, and the growth of mass media circuits in particular, the proliferation of journalism geared toward the middle- and working-class populations facilitated the appearance of an eclectic middle-brow literary scene on the margins of the mainstream literary establishment (Sarlo, 1988a: 28). This literary universe was populated by descendants of immigrants such as Roberto Arlt with limited cultural capital that is, mastery of language, academic credentials, knowledge and other types of cognitive skills acquired through education indispensable for an individuals social mobility (Bourdieu, 1993) as well as erudite writers driven by leftist ideologies. Among this latter category were those who distanced themselves from the high-brow avant-garde in search of Gonzalez transgressive literary models drawn from working-class culture such as Raul on and Leonidas Tun Barletta. These authors emphasised low subject matters, brought into the limelight marginalised social sectors underrepresented in mainstream literature and reached out to popular audiences through journalistic channels, and through largecirculation outlets such as the folletn. Arlts serial pieces, for example, were published in dailies, and later in novels, and they conveyed the sense of frustrated ambitions and resentment experienced by the underprivileged who were excluded from the process of modernisation. In crafting his prose, Arlt, a self-taught writer immersed in the cultural territory of the poor, was inuenced by low-quality translations of European novelists, cheap technology manuals, and the quasi-scientic knowledge produced by the occult sciences (Sarlo, 1988a: 5162). Arlts porteno characterised by street slang and idiosyncratic syntax an affront to the rened sensibilities of lettered elites complemented the texts technological imagination. A typical denunciation of Arlts bad taste appeared in Murenas review of Arlt in La Nacion in 1971: [el lenguaje de Arlt] constituye un monumento al mal gusto; [es] una pasmosa mezcla de clis es de cronista policial, estereotipos de p esimas de comercio. traducciones espanolas y giros de manual de redaccion (Rivera, 1992) ([Arlts language] is a monumental embodiment of bad taste; [it is] an astonishing mixture of clich es extracted from detective chronicles, stereotypes borrowed from mediocre Spanish translations and expressions used in business writing manuals). on and Barletta, prominent afliates of the Boedo In a similar vein, Gonzalez Tun movement, penned irreverent stories of the River Plate underworld populated with drug addicts, thieves, gangs, prostitutes and circus actors (Sarlo, 1988a: 162169). Sarlos analysis in A Peripheral Modernity is salient in several respects. As an exercise in cultural history, the study is informed by questions such as: How are social conicts refracted in literary debates?; How do changing social realities propel the development of new aesthetic forms?; and In what way is Arlt different from Borges, or Alfonsina Storni from Victoria Ocampo?. As a consequence, the book precludes the possibility
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of a normative comparison between, for example, the high-brow and the middle-brow currents of the avant-garde. Rather, from a historical point of view, the reader is likely to see that the proliferation of the bohemian middle-brow avant-garde was symptomatic of a healthy democratisation of cultural production within a multi-ethnic state such as Argentina. Arlt or Barlettas bricolage literature, while brushed aside by contemporaneous literary purists, appealed to the popular reader, at the same time affording the sophisticated reader (including Sarlo) the possibility of an emotive and political solidarity with the underprivileged. The sociological focus adopted by Sarlo in the study enables her to approach the on, literary works under examination from different angles. For example, Gonzalez Tun Stanchina and Arlt are singled out for their ability to produce hybrid texts. Such texts exhibit popular themes and genre conventions with the help of an ironic attitude presupposed by the authors critical distance from the lending cultural milieu (Sarlo, 1988a: 53). Stanchinas grotesque portrayal of the dispossessed or Arlts poetics devoid of the moralising thrust of mimetic realism, yield a non-paternalistic representation of marginal groups through a stylised appropriation of lumpen elements. But Sarlos survey of the middle-brow literature also includes texts whose originality cannot be attributed to their stylistic complexity. For example, Barlettas Royal Circo (Royal Circus) offers a melodramatic depiction of the circus universe that contrasts with what has been described as Gonzalez Tunons high hybridisation of erudite and popular (Borge, 2008: 264). Emphasising the novels affective potential, Sarlo nevertheless endorses the texts reassuring illusion of familiarity, and she welcomes its capacity to engage the popular reader (Sarlo, 1988a: 198). Sarlos appraisal of Alfonsina Stornis poetry is equally instructive. According to the critic, Stornis early work, produced between 1916 and 1934 prior to the appearance of Mundo de siete pozos, if judged by the standards of the lettered culture of her day, is undeniably cursi (tacky) (Sarlo, 1988a: 79). However, according to Sarlo, although Stornis early poetry is not formally innovative, it introduces a new thematic repertoire: the afrmation of womens intellectual worth and independence. A single mother with humble economic means, a cerebral woman and a successful poet in a male-oriented traditional society, Storni: no practica una doble ruptura, formal e ideologica, sino una ruptura [moral] simple pero inmediatamente comunicable, ejemplar y exitosa. (Sarlo, 1988a: 81) (rather than simultaneously departing from formal and ideological conventions, Storni breaks with [moral] conventions in a way that is simple but immediately transparent, exemplary and successful.) Notice that Sarlos implicit endorsement of Stornis work is centred on an appraisal of its ideological value. The latter consideration offsets the objection, which now appears historicised, that Stornis work is inferior to that of her avant-garde peers because it lags behind stylistically. Sarlo describes this as Stornis bad taste, referring to the poets recourse to the melodramatic rhetoric of late romanticism that was superseded or subverted by many contemporaneous writers (Sarlo, 1988a: 79). In Sarlos reading, not only does the ethical dimension of Stornis poetry compensate for its lack of formal sophistication; the proto-feminist thrust of Stornis texts in fact deforms the lachrymal content of the melodramatic rhetoric (Sarlo, 1988a: 7881). Moreover, according to Sarlo, because these texts had a familiar and easily digestible format, Stornis poetry

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acquired a wider readership than that enjoyed by the high-brow avant-garde an outcome that attested to the healthy democratisation of literatures consumption beyond the connes of Argentinas lettered city. The socio-historical gaze on literature commits Sarlo to a value-neutral mode of reading that stymies the possibility of hierarchising texts on the basis of their formal properties. The difculty lies in the fact that literary texts of various degrees of complexity, and belonging to different cultural domains, are typically assessed using criteria internal to each subeld of cultural production. In the case of The Empire of Sentiments, Sarlos retrieval of kitsch and popular idiolects in literature is informed by her concern with its affective and pedagogical impact on the target readership. Consequently, she presents the notion of value as a relational concept pointing to the interaction between middle-brow texts and popular audiences (Sarlo, 2000: 227). Similarly, Sarlos study of early twentieth-century Argentine literature in A Peripheral Modernity suggests that what is salient about texts produced by representatives of one cultural order cannot be easily judged by standards upheld by their competitors. The formal density of Borgess narrative is of a different quality than that of Arlts hybrid prose. A cosmopolitan intellectual who astutely positioned himself en los margenes, en los repliegues, en las zonas oscuras, de las historias centrales (on the margins, in the folds, in the dark zones of mainstream narratives), Borges is celebrated for his erudite, philosophically informed writing (Sarlo, 1988a: 49). In contrast to Borgesian or Arltean poetics, Stornis early work, in Sarlos appraisal, stands out for its pioneering ideological insights regardless of its formal simplicity (Sarlo, 1988a: 81).

Sarlo, the Literary Critic


At this point the objection could be raised that the above studies are not adequate sources for testing Sarlos later theoretical claims. After all, as a cultural historian Sarlo is not interested in comparing literary texts on the basis of their aesthetic merits. Let us therefore consider Sarlos more recent book Escritos sobre literatura argentina (Essays on Argentine Literature, 2007a), a compilation that includes literary reviews published in Punto de Vista (Point of View) and other magazines, as well as unpublished essays presented at academic conferences. This collection of essays covers a wide array of texts, ranging from twentieth-century Argentine classics to contemporary Argentine narrative. It thus affords us a unique opportunity to peruse an extensive body of chronologically disparate literary criticism written by Sarlo between 1980 and 2006. The identication of Essays on Argentine literature as an especially rich site for Sarlos theoretical insights is not arbitrary. In the books preface, for example, the critic acknowledges that her selection of authors is biased in other words, the anthology contains reviews of literary texts that Sarlo herself deems aesthetically accomplished. A quick glance at the books table of contents reveals Sarlos penchant for avant-garde aesthetics in the broad sense of the term. A signicant number of texts analysed in the compilation are stylistically complex, innovative texts inscribed within the tradition, as Sarlo has put it elsewhere, of est etica rupturista (breakaway aesthetics) (Sarlo, 2000: 227). Sarlos evaluation of these literary pieces is based primarily on two considerations: (a) whether the authors of the reviewed texts inaugurated or reinforced new posts in the art world by propelling the development of new literary forms (Bourdieu, 1993: 6265); and (b) whether these texts offer ideological insights by crystallising the structure of feeling of a particular cultural environment (Williams, 1977). For example, Victoria Ocampo
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is hailed as an early interpreter of European high culture and an assertive writer hostile to docile femininity, whose intellectual trajectory represented a detour from her gender origins and whose writings captured the experience of upper-class women in a patriarchal society (Sarlo, 2007a: 139146). Similarly, Sarlo assesses Lugoness private correspondence in an attempt to reconstruct the ethical and the aesthetic dimensions of the early twentieth-century ideal of romantic love. She distils the structure of feeling latent in Lugoness lovers discourse by examining the poets use of a linguistic arsenal borrowed from late romanticism and modernism (Sarlo, 2007a: 115123). Borges, the joven veterano de las guerrillas vanguardistas (the young veteran of the avant-garde guerrillas), is singled out for his reshaping of the River Plate literary universe through the cultural lter of European avant-garde, and for demolishing the decorous modernist tradition reinforced, among others, by Lugones (Sarlo, 2007a: 149). Cortazars Rayuela (Hopscotch) is likewise hailed for its subversive originality, with Sarlo noting that Cortazars eccentric, playful and cosmopolitan anti-novel offered a new literary deal. This new deal promised a new way of reading literature through an artful colloquial language and an engaging treatment of themes such as alienation and exile (Sarlo, 2007a: 237262). Juan Jos e Saers narrative is celebrated for its modernist edge. In Sarlos estimate, Saer is a great writer whose narrative, inspired by Proust and Joyce, elucidates our subjective experience of reality (Sarlo, 2007a: 306320). And Sarlos appraisal of contemporary Argentine narrative is based on similar criteria. Sergio Chejfecs El aire (Air) is singled out for its stylistic charm (a new syntax) and the originality of its aesthetic rendition of banal themes (Sarlo, 2007a: 394397). Roberto Raschellas Si hubi eramos vivido aqu (If We had Lived Here) catches Sarlos attention for its masterful blending of linguistic dialects (Sarlo, 2007a: 404411). The originality of Ricardo Piglias ction is attributed to the authors capacity to create a self-generating literary machine that: explica lo que debe ser la literatura y prepara su espacio de circulacion, sintoniza sus opiniones con las zonas sosticadas de la crtica literaria. (Sarlo, 2007a: 382) (prepares the ground for his target audiences, explains what literature should be and synchronises his opinions with sophisticated areas of literary criticism.) A signicant number of Sarlos reviews in the collection thus deal with high-brow works aimed at serious readers. They are semantically and formally dense texts written for the most part by erudite authors capable of producing original and stylistically polished works. And yet, the attribution of aesthetic value to a text on the basis of its formal and semantic properties becomes more problematic if one considers a different category of works analysed by Sarlo, namely, that of hybrid middle-brow literature. Among the writings revisited in the compilation are texts authored by Sarlos long-term favourite Roberto Arlt. Recall that, as Sarlo points out elsewhere, Arlts narrative, like works of popular imagination, embodies the lore of the practical and exemplies the aesthetic of the heterogeneous, demonstrating that literature can be made from anything . . . (Sarlo, 1994b: 574, 584). However, what interests Sarlo in Escritos is not so much the extent of the structural resemblance of Arlts ction to works of popular literature as the ideological surplus that distinguishes Arlts texts from mass-production literature. According to Sarlo, Arlts extremist narrative erodes the cheap discourse of sentimentalism. In doing so, it exposes the hypocrisy of bourgeois ethics (Sarlo, 2007a:

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226). Through his recourse to a rhetoric of cynicism, Arlt thereby forestalls the pleasure of happy endings typically afforded by commercial literature. If one can claim that Arlts narrative is vigorous because, among other things, it blocks the possibility of an easy gratication by cannibalising the sentimental discourse of pop novels through irony, Manuel Puigs post-boom narrative ought not to be evaluated in terms of a supposed distance between commercial and high-brow literature. Sarlos treatment of Puig in the collection echoes Fredric Jamesons observation that postmodernist cultural production abolishes the frontier between high and mass culture as new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern become critically acclaimed (Jameson, 1991: 2). Puigs narrative of the late 1960s incorporates stylistic elements of kitsch media serial sentimental novels, detective stories, popular songs, movies, and radio novels without a hint of irony. For Sarlo, the originality of Puigs ction, similarly to that of Andy Warhols pop art, lies in the absence of a personal style. Puig successfully erases the authors presence in the narrative by importing ready-made clich es recycled by the culture industry (Sarlo, 2007a: 324). In the same vein, Daniel Links novel La ansiedad: novela trash (Anxiety: a Trash Novel, 2004) simulates the social protocols of twenty-rst-century cyberspace. A collage composed of emails, internet chats, and quotations from Kafka, Thomas Mann, Barthes, and so on, La ansiedad appropriates oral discourses harvested through electronic media in an attempt to show, as the books cover explains, the schizophrenic uprootedness of men in contemporary societies (Sarlo, 2007a: 479482). Sarlo welcomes the innovative thrust of Puig and Links texts. However, it is clear that the value of Puigs and Links novels does not reside in their formal properties. Sarlo treats the two types of narrative as literary equivalents of Warhols Brillo Boxes artworks indistinguishable from their commonplace counterparts (Danto, 1981). The appeal to formal criteria becomes problematic if the difference between literary and non-literary discourse cannot be read off the texts themselves. Indeed, a lot of contemporary artworks obtain their honoric status as artworks not because of idiosyncratic skills that enable the artist to create formally dense masterpieces, but rather because of the intellectual capital such as knowledge of the art world required to produce works capable of gripping the attention of cultural experts (Danto, 1964). Someone like Warhol or Link is more of a theory-maker than a craftsman who develops new painting or literary techniques. The originality of their work, Sarlo recognises, lies in the artists ability to stake a theoretical claim that changes the art worlds rules of engagement (Sarlo, 2007a: 481). Sarlos work, then, brings into focus several considerations. On the one hand, the contrast between the methodology that Sarlo, the cultural historian, uses in The Empire of Sentiments and A Peripheral Modernity and the methodology that Sarlo, the literary critic, deploys in Essays on Argentine Literature throws into relief the extent to which a critics commitment to a prescriptive theory of aesthetic value is contingent upon his or her disciplinary location. A sociologist or a historian of art might not subscribe to such a theory if he or she regards value as a relational concept useful for registering heterogeneous responses of various social groups to a particular class of artworks. In other words, the notion of aesthetic value does not necessarily allude to an intersubjective consensus regarding the virtues of an artwork. Sarlos surveys of Argentine literature also bring to mind the fact that the complex critical operation by means of which aesthetic value is assigned to a text might be motivated by the critics desire to pay tribute to underprivileged social sectors. As I have previously pointed out, Sarlos charitable review of Stornis poetry in A Peripheral Modernity
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reveals the critics afnity for the writers existential predicament. In her celebration of Stornis literature on ideological grounds Sarlo ushers into her purportedly descriptive account of Argentine literary history value judgments that reveal the essayists militant sympathies (Sarlo, 1989: 22). On the other hand, Essays on Argentine Literature underscores the difculty of appraising the texts endorsed by Sarlo as worthy of consideration through a uniform set of formal criteria (such as formal and semantic density). It could be argued that what many texts reviewed in the anthology share is their innovative character. Sarlos attention might be justiably gripped by authors who in one way or another reshaped or expanded Argentinas literary canon. From this vantage point, and despite the methodological discrepancy between the two books, both Essays on Argentine Literature and A Peripheral Modernity can be read as historical archives comprised of authors whom Sarlo deems justly canonised. The notion of aesthetic value might be considered synonymous with the concept of originality, whether originality is dened in terms of a texts ideological value, the authors recourse to novel stylistic devices, or extra-textual theoretical insights that make the reader wonder about the ontological nature of the work of art. This solution appears attractive. As the notion of originality encompasses a multiplicity of features, artworks belonging to various elds of cultural production can be valorised with the help of the same type of criterion the artworks relation to its predecessors and its ability to set a forceful precedent for the subsequent development of the art world (Bourdieu, 1993). It appears obvious, however, that if artworks were compared primarily on the basis of the novelty criterion, many artworks that recycle the conventions of a particular genre would be disqualied as inferior. It also means that critics would hold in higher esteem, to use Bourdieus terminology, artworks belonging to the eld of restricted production prone to rapid innovation rather than mass cultural objects or folk art manufactured at a different pace and more likely to contain repetitive patterns (Bourdieu, 1993). Critical of prejudiced intellectual elites (Sarlo, 2001: 83) who indiscriminately condemn mass culture products as vulgar, Sarlo has adopted a more nuanced approach that invites us to bypass the dichotomy between, on the one hand, pessimistic variants of mass-culture criticism hostile to contemporary culture industries and, on the other hand, overly optimistic celebrations of democratisation of taste via the expansion of mass culture. In Modernidad y despu es: la cultura en situacion , de hegemona massmediatica the Argentine critic explicitly denounces both the excessive optimism of those who uncritically equate the increasing mass-mediatisation of culture with progress and the gloomy stance of aesthetic pessimists who decry the inevitable social decadence brought about by culture industries (Sarlo, 1993: 52). In a similar vein, surveying the historically positive role of mass cultural phenomena in her more recent essay The Place of Art, Sarlo notes that the lms of Charlie Chaplin, Yasujiro Ozu or John Ford outstanding aesthetic achievements produced during the pioneering phase of mass cinema before the culture industry became a dominant enclave of cultural production show that aesthetic experimentation and audience expansion may in fact overlap (Sarlo, 2001: 107109). Shifting her attention to contemporary mass culture, Sarlo has argued that skilful conformism does not necessarily detract from a works quality (Sarlo, 2001: 83). In the essayists opinion, a television serial is all well and good as long as it meets: the genres minimal requirements, which include suspense, close interweavings of the personal and the social, plot complications that are unexpected without being completely unbelievable . . . and a combination of repetition to detain our interest plus novelty to maintain it. (Sarlo, 2001: 83)

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According to Sarlo, what matters about art is the spirit of variation, or necessary arbitrariness, that: switches between and superimposes very different layers such as mass culture, grand aesthetic traditions, popular cultures, the most everyday forms of language, poetic tension, private and subjective elements, and public passions. (Sarlo, 2001: 109110)

Conclusion
What, then, does one make of Sarlos discourse on aesthetic value? I would like to suggest that Sarlos theoretical project, similar to Arthur Dantos enterprise in The Transguration of the Common Place: A Philosophy of Art, can be read as an attempt, on the one hand, to circumvent both formalist and institutional theories of art and, on the other, to repudiate pessimistic versions of mass-culture criticism traceable to Adornos indictment of the culture industry. In The Transguration of the Commonplace, Danto argues that because the art world possesses its own internal logic, any commonplace object cannot be classied as a work of art. In order for an object to be transgured into a work of art a minimal set of conditions must be met. There have to be favourable historical circumstances and institutional maturity in order for a candidate for aesthetic appreciation to enter the art world. The object must be intended as a work of art, that is, it must have a representational content (for example, a sensation, a point of view, an argument). In other words, artworks are like metaphors in that they do not merely represent subjects, but properties of the mode of representation itself must be constituent in understanding them (Danto, 1981: 189). Consequently, unlike standard real-life objects, artworks must be interpreted. In the process of discerning the meaning of an artwork, the interpreter becomes the subject of aesthetic experience. Similarly to Danto, while Sarlo is well aware of the fact that acts of artistic designation are susceptible to historically contingent institutional forces, she urges us to treat artworks as ontologically distinct entities endowed with properties that commonplace objects lack. In this sense Sarlos position is different from the claim, put forward by institutional theories of art, that any commonplace object can be legitimately labelled as a work of art. This type of approach also differs from the view that the value of an artwork is determined by a particular kind of formal property requiring an intersubjective appreciation and whose maximisation yields accomplished artworks (i.e. the more aesthetic properties a work has the better it is). The normative agenda implicit in many formalist theories of art is absent from Sarlos writings. Indeed, a thorough reading of Sarlos work as a whole reveals that the critic carefully avoids normative comparisons even when dealing with consecrated texts. If my reading of Sarlo is correct, Sarlos project should not, then, be regarded as a repackaging of either essentialist or apocalyptic variants of art criticism. Sarlos argument does reach an impasse, however, insofar as her invitation to take into account an aesthetic acts dense signication (Sarlo, 2001: 139) implies the possibility of distinguishing ex ante between works of art and other types of cultural forms. We have seen that Sarlos own critical practice attests to the difculty of applying uniformly the formal and semantic density criterion even to objects honourically designated as artworks because the very notion of dense signication is a familyresemblance concept. As such, it points to a variety of features, many of which are
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equally applicable, for example, to works of art and to objects of popular culture. While it is true that fully addressing such a concern requires a thorough philosophy of art, of the kind, for instance, that Arthur Danto has provided a task that Sarlo in her capacity as a cultural critic has not undertaken explicitly it does not follow that the absence of such a theory in Sarlos work renders her position illegitimate. And although it does seem necessary to clarify whether Sarlos aestheticist discourse entails an unwitting invitation to differentiate between different types of symbolic practices in a normative way, one might also see how this need not be the critics primary goal. Sarlos insistence on taking into account an aesthetic acts dense signication can be interpreted, as Sarlo herself has suggested, as a make-believe discourse, i.e. a politically expedient intervention in cultural politics (Sarlo, 2001: 123, 139). For example, to rehash some of the Argentine critics well-known arguments, the performative value of the quasi-aestheticist claim might consist in encouraging cultural studies departments to preserve literary canons as great hermeneutic opportunities for the production of new meanings and the discussion of old meanings rather than to discard them on the assumption that the timeless notion of great works of art is obsolete (Sarlo, 1994a: 7). The notion of a make-believe discourse also highlights the view that the eld of cultural production as a whole, while unavoidably susceptible to political and market ideologies, should not be subordinated to instrumental reason. This stance is consistent with Sarlos repudiation of her pre-1980 understanding of the links between aesthetics and politics in favour of the view, outlined, for example, in La maquina cultural, that art should not be cannibalised by politics (Marxist, Peronist or any other kind). That is to say, artistic discourses are not reducible to ideological discourses and the potential impact of an artwork cannot be assessed by means of a linear analysis of the works explicit message (Sarlo, 2007b: 191195). This also means, for example, that in local contexts where nation-states coexist with transnational capital, attempts to diversify cultural production and to support artistic initiatives not driven by a prot motive whether these are sponsored by states, communities, grassroots organisations or international philanthropic organisations should be aggressively encouraged. In a number of articles published in Punto de Vista, Sarlo has convincingly argued that an authentic democratisation of culture does not consist in removing legal, nancial or ideological obstacles to make it possible for the private for-prot sector to monopolise the sphere of cultural production. Rather, a sound cultural policy should aim at securing a plurality of information sources and cultural outlets by ensuring an equilibrium between private and public initiatives in an attempt to minimise the risk of cultural homogenisation (Sarlo, 1988b, 1988c). N estor Garca Canclini and Piedras Ferias recent study Las industrias culturales y el desarrollo de M exico (2006) provides another example of how the rhetoric of aesthetic value can be used productively to bridge the gap between art theory and cultural politics. Commenting on the impact of transnational commercial networks on indigenous artisanal production, the Mexican sociologist observes that very often indigenous artists modify their original designs to accommodate the tastes of foreign consumers. It is well known that Garca Canclini himself does not espouse the negative view that indigenous artefacts adapted to the demands of the tourist industry are, sadly, impure (see Culturas hbridas, 1990: 222224). However, he points out that those cultural actors who are concerned with the need to preserve the symbolic value of original ethnic artefacts should encourage the state to provide economic support to indigenous communities in order to free them from reliance on craftsmanship as the sole means of survival. In this case, the emphasis on the distinction between aesthetic

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and commodied objects is relevant for the purpose of designing progressive cultural policy initiatives aimed at protecting minority cultures in multi-ethnic states. Finally, Sarlos position can be developed into an argument that would dene aesthetic experience as a site of ethical problematisation or an ethics of withdrawal (Hunter, 1992: 367). To call attention to the density of the aesthetic act, rather than of a particular cultural text, is to underscore the importance of cognitive dispositions associated with the process of aesthetic contemplation: inwardness, attentiveness to subjective states, intensication of imaginative experience, disregard for public appearances, the identication of nobility with self-cultivation, dialectical thinking (Hunter, 1992: 360). In other words, if what is valuable is the subjects way of relating to the cultural objects he or she produces or consumes, regardless of whether these belong to the eld of restricted or mass production, then myopic text-centred approaches to the problem of aesthetic value entailing a call for piecemeal normative comparisons can be set aside. If we grant that individuals exercise a will to art in relation to objects belonging to different cultural domains and that the act of composing oneself as the subject of aesthetic experience (Hunter, 1992: 36) is socially valuable, the question In what way are some artworks better than others? can be replaced with the questions What kind of cognitive impact do various types of artistic practices have on different target communities?, and What types of artistic techniques and institutional settings encourage the spectators proclivity for introspection? A rearticulation of the value problem in terms of our appreciation of the modes of subjectication that are constitutive of aesthetic experience would allow us to bypass the deep-seated urge to appraise artistic practices in terms of a xed set of properties without relapsing into radical relativism.

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