Some of the most thoughtful work I’ve seen regarding aesthetics and ethics, and the related, is by Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (the 1941 date below is for the collection, not for the essays, most of which were written in the 1930s, I think):
(1941) Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:
“Here I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Sociological criticism is certainly not new. I shall try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach. And to make the ‘way in’ as easy as possible, I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs. Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no ‘pure’ literature here. Everything is ‘medicine.’ Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling” (253).
(1941) Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:
“The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic.
“Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. There are two kinds of ‘toleration.’ Even if a given state of affairs is found, on intellectualistic grounds, to be intolerable, the fact remains that as long as it is with us we must more or less contrive to ‘tolerate’ it. Even though we might prefer to alter radically the present structure of production and distribution through the profit motive, the fact remains that we cannot so alter it forthwith. Hence, along with our efforts to alter it, must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people. Likewise the literature of sentimentality, however annoying and self-deceptive it may seem to the hardened ‘intellectual,’ is following in a direction basically so sound that one might wish more of our pretentious authors were attempting to do the same thing more pretentiously. On the other hand, much of the harsh literature now being turned out in the name of the ‘proletariat’ seems inadequate on either count. It is questionable as propaganda, since it shows us so little of the qualities in mankind worth saving. And it is questionable as ‘pure’ art, since by substituting a cult of disaster for a cult of amenities it ‘promotes our acquiescence’ to sheer dismalness. Too often, alas, it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen. Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness” (271-278).
Historical tendency of liberation literature in the United States:
Key books of criticism by V. F. Calverton, Upton Sinclair and Bernard Smith explore the tendency (or tradition and lack thereof) of liberation literature far better – more thoroughly, incisively and in greater context despite flaws – than any other group of texts of the time period (add a number of essays by Kenneth Burke of the time), and they remain unusually valuable, and buried.