Correction: The following post refers to Lois McNaly and should properly read Lois McNay. My apology to the author.
In the book, Foucault, Lois McNaly (1994, p. 149) critiques Michel Foucault’s notion of aestheticism or the aesthetics of the self/existence as being overly reliant on the heroization of the self.
Foucault utilised Baudelaire the Dandy as a way to exemplify the way an individual might bring themselves forth into the world; a way of producing oneself as a work of art. This work of art is said to have a non-productive quality and by that I believe Foucault was suggesting the production of art for arts sake, not the production of art in some attempt at communicative reason. It sounds as though he was attempting to be elitist by having people create themselves as pieces of high art that served ‘no’ purpose. But in reality he was attempting to bring art to the grasp of all individuals. We can each create our own lives as a work of art without first finding some form of hidden existential being lurking deep below the surface. Foucault, I believe, was simply attempting, through Baudelaire the Dandy, to demonstrate that self mastery was immanent and immediately available for all human beings. No need to wait for the shrink, just start producing art.
But McNaly’s critique is leveled against what she sees as the underlying gendered tones of the invocation of Foucault’s heroic male artist. McNaly believes that the subtext of Foucault’s Dandy is unaddressed and therefore the aesthetics have become fetishized; given more meaning and power then they deserve.
I don’t share McNaly’s criticism. Foucault might have employed any other of a myriad illustrations to explain and demonstrate his notion. Instead he chose a Dandy artist who become heroized by academics; and its regrettable this occurred. For me, Foucault was simply attempting to provide a sense of the now available to each of us. In the same way as an artist stills the mind in the creative moment, Foucault was attempting to explain something difficult, if not impossible, to understand at the level of the intellect.
McNaly, L. (1994). Foucault. Oxford: Polity Press.