It is often enough asserted that aesthetic values are "really" ethical ones, or that the aesthetic is "always already" political, or that aesthetic taste and judgment are necessarily secondary to some other consideration in a move that essentially amounts to claiming that we shouldn't ask works of art, maybe especially literary art, to be too, well, artistic. The latest such assertion I have seen is from Alec Niedenthal in a post at HTMLGIANT:
[I want to ask w]hy we do not, by and large, see aesthetics as ethics, as an ethical act, a metapolitics, for which we, as writers with the power and duty to transform, are deeply and inescapably responsible. And how we get from ethics to moral literature: literature with deep conviction and passion toward the event of truth.
When we talk about style, language, form, we are already talking about ethics, about politics. There is no such thing as a work of art for-itself.
My immediate response to this is to suggest that those of us with an interest in aesthetic values do not see aesthetics as ethics because they can't possibly be the same thing. If they were, we'd need only one of the terms to discuss what's going on in works of art, and the whole debate about how much emphasis should be placed on the aesthetic in the creation and reception of art would be moot. I can understand the belief that in addition to considering aesthetic value one might further reflect on ethical questions one thinks a work might raise, but to in effect make the aesthetic disappear as an element in our experience of art just seems to me a denial of art altogether.
By what metaphysical operation has Niedenthal determined that "There is no such thing as a work of art for-itself"? Perhaps in his own response to art he doesn't apprehend a "for itself," but does he assume that what he takes from the experience of art is perforce true of everyone? If I am able in my initial response to a work of art or literature to brackett off other considerations (historical, political, ethical) and to focus my attention on what I can discern as the aesthetic strategies at work and on the effects of these strategies, does Neidenthal say that what I am doing is invalid? Am I not really doing what I think I'm doing? How would he know? I don't contend that "art for-itself" is the only way to approach works of art, only that it should be the first way to approach them and that subsequent consideration of ethical or historical or political implications that doesn't take into account a work's origin in aesthetic forms will inevitably distort perception of the work. I don't say there is no such thing as ethical implication, while Niedenthal is quite absolute in his rejection of aesthetic autonomy.
Niedenthan quotes a passage from David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon" as an example of Wallace's "love" for his readers:
His style is all there: the rhythm, the breathless voice, the perfect syllabic stretches. But it’s not like you could listen to this voice talk about anything. Because, the point is, it wouldn’t talk about anything. The voice inscribes what is said with the urgency of its very saying. One gets the sense that this voice lives at all for the sake of these select sentences, that it has self-sacrificed for them.
The problem with this analysis is that it posits the "voice" as existing prior to its incarnation in this passage, or this story. The reason it could not "talk about anything" is that it was invoked to "talk about" this scene, not as a "gift" bestowed by the author (presumably the source of the voice). That the "voice inscribes what is said with the urgency of its very saying" is a nice way to describe the effect of the passage, but this doesn't seem to me a statement about its ethical urgency but rather an insight into the aesthetic success of "Good Old Neon." The voice does indeed exist "for the sake of these select sentences," but to say "it has self-sacrificed for them" seems unnecessarily mystical, even as a metaphor. No "self" has been sacrificed; words have been arranged on the page such that, in context, they have an impact on the reader. This impact must first of all be due to the arfulness of their arrangement and the cumulative force of the context.
I'm sure that Alec Niedenthal is sincerely expressing his reading response to a writer like Wallace. Perhaps DFW even felt a concern about the "ethical" content of his fiction. But what he has left us with are precisely the various artful arrangements to be found there, and to become preoccupied with the ethics his work purportedly embodies is at best to get ahead of the critical task of assessing that work and at worst to engage in ungrounded speculation.