Aesthetics

Why am I so focused on the term ‘aesthetics’? It is not as though I can make it mean whatever I like, yet it seems to represents a more open field of possibility than the notion of art.

I’m not regarding aesthetics as simply a supplementary reflection on art. Since Hegel, aesthetics is typically regarded as the philosophy of art. This remains evident in Ranciere’s sense that aesthetics represents a mode of thinking the paradoxes of contemporary art – for example, art’s notional autonomy and its dissolution into everyday life. For Ranciere, the role of aesthetics is to render this space of confusion lucid and to tease out its underlying politics. While I can see the logic of Ranciere’s conception, and certainly its relevance to making sense of the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, I am drawing upon a less historically determinate conception.

I am interested, for example, in the tension between two different definitions of the aesthetic that are evident in Kant’s critical philosophy. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, drawing upon Baumgarten, regards aesthetics as the philosophy of sensible perception and experience. Less than a decade later, however, in his Critique of Judgement, he defines it in terms of a philosophy of the beautiful and the sublime. He relates these qualities less to art than to nature. It is Hegel who makes the decisive shift away from nature towards the philosophy of art (yet of course art is also conceived as a form of nature, of the uplifting of nature into a more properly spiritual realm). So I am interested in these tensions within the early notion of aesthetics. As a philosophy of sensible perception and experience, aesthetics has wide-ranging epistemological and ontological implications. Conceived more narrowly as the philosophy of art, aesthetics nonetheles refuses to obtain clear resolution – constantly bleeding out beyond the sphere of art per se (assuming this per se has any meaning whatsoever).

As a dimension of experience – sensible, but also tending into the conceptual, however much this is resisted – the aesthetic takes shape as something that is more than a mode of thinking. It is also a mode of practice. My interest is less in the philosophy of aesthetics than the possibility of aesthetic practice.

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Aesthetic Practice 2

The aim is to propose a notion of aesthetic practice. My argument is that aesthetic practice is a broader field than artistic practice. For a start, it involves more than simply making things (the etymology of the term ‘art’ relates to the skillful making of things, even if this is less relevant to the field of contemporary art). Aesthetic practice can involve making things, but it can also involve doing nothing especially skillful or constructive. It links to dimensions of experience that can relate to any number of particular practices. In this sense, aesthetic practice is less a species of practice per se than an aspect of practice – and here practice is not restricted to active modalities of being. There is also the practice of doing nothing, of being inattentive, of letting life and time slide away. Practice, in this very loose sense, simply refers to a coherent form of experience, rather than to anything that demands especially active ‘doing’.

So permitting this loose, counter-intuitive definition of practice, what does it mean to speak of a specifically aesthetic practice? We know it need not involve making things, then what does it involve? For my purposes, it links crucially to an aspect of play and reflection. Here I am using the word ‘play’ in the very general sense that Caillois defines it as meaningful activity that is not directed towards achieving narrowly intrumental goals. This is not to say that instrumental activity cannot have an aesthetic dimension, it is just that the aesthetic portion of it is not reducible to the accomplishment of teleologically conceived ends. There is always something else there – something linked to a choreography of time, space and motion. It need not be beautiful, it need not take particular distinctive shape. It is a tracing out of possibility. It can leave a mark. It can be ephemeral. It can register as a moment of experience or it can instantly dissolve into other things. Futhermore, if not immediately instrumental (in the Kantian sense), it is a least purposive. It repeats, distills and exaggerates. It plays with experience. It represents it as a space of possibility. In this sense, even if not especially cognizant of what it is doing, it reflects upon the conditions of experience. It opens them up. It has the capacity to maintain and redirect currents of both ordinary and extraordinary being.

Why choose the term ‘aesthetic’? We typically associate aesthetics with the philosophy of art and beauty. While it can suggest aspects of radical promise (for instance in the writings of Schiller, Heidegger, Adorno, Ranciere, etc.), very often, in more everyday contexts, it appears as an antiquated and anachronistic field. It seems precious and faintly absurd. Similar to the philosophy of jokes, it is dismissed as something that adopts a very serious demeanour to talk about things it knows nothing about and can never adequately conceive or appreciate. Aesthetics, from this perspective, appears inevitably tardy and irrelevant. It finds long-winded means to miss the point at every turn. My aim is to argue against this view and to elaborate a broader notion of what aesthetics can mean. I do this for two reasons: firstly, in order to describe an aspect of experience that is aligned with, but not reducible to art; and secondly to demonstrate how the philosphical tradition suggests a richer thinking of aesthetics. Do I expect the term to obtain a new currency? Not really, but inasmuch as there is no other term with quite the same capacity to delineate what concerns me, I am determined to use it. My hope is that my non-specialist and most likely wayward reading of the philosophical tradition will have positive value in thinking beyond contemporary impasses and dilemmas.

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Aesthetic Practice

It occurs to me that there may be some value in conceiving a notion of aesthetic practice. Aesthetics typically appears as a field that is secondary to the primary phenomenon of art (and art practice), but I wish to argue otherwise: both that aesthetics precedes the contemporary notion of art; and also that aesthetic practice is broader than art practice. The value of this conception is not only that it acknowledges the philosophical breadth of aesthetics, but also that it enables a reflection beyond the dilemmas of art – its awkward cultural and institutional positioning. Art practice, in my view, is an aspect of aesthetic practice, but it does not exhaust it. Aesthetic practice is not limited to the field of art. This is not simply a matter of conceptual definition and redefinition. It gets to the heart of the scope and the potential of aesthetics as form of rich and at time incisive cultural practice. It may seem strange to associate ‘aesthetics’ as a realm of philosophical reflection with ‘practice’ as a realm of social action. My notion of aesthetics will suggest a critique of the perceived gap between reflection and action, which can, of course, be related to the social and economic distinction between consumption and production. I am suggesting a soft notion of practice that questions and unsettles this binary schema. Practice need not be restricted to the realm of the conventionally productive – of making. It can, for instance, also be about repetition and maintenance. It can also represent a lived relation to the existent.

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On the Numerical Education of Art and Aesthetics

This paper considers the implications of conceiving contemporary tertiary art education in terms of models of logical-mathematical being and understanding. While art and aesthetics have always borne a relation to the field of systematic abstraction that numbers represent, something new is afoot, and it affects precisely a conception of education. Art education is increasingly conceived in terms of sets of discrete and equivalent competencies and transferable capacities (project development, imagination, communication, teamwork, etc.) that can be clearly mapped to the requirements of the workplace. The value of an art education is becoming cast in terms of its equivalence – its capacity to be applied elsewhere. While these changes are affecting education generally, they have particular implications for the traditional self-understanding of art education as a critical, qualitatively particular and holistic space.

Signal Flow
Below is a diagram that I encountered in my very first lecture of a degree in Communication and Media at the University of Canberra (then Canberra College of Advanced Education) in 1981.

This is US mathematician and electronic engineer Claude Shannon’s very influential diagram of the communication process from his Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). Shannon is a key figure in the invention of digital computation, having demonstrated how the abstract system of Boolean algebra can be represented in the material interaction of binary electrical circuits.

As a humanities oriented student, this diagram made little sense to me. The whole idea of breaking the communication process up into discrete mechanical aspects, of suggesting that it flows in a single direction and of positing a key relationship (and antagonism) between system noise and instrumental signal, seemed a vast oversimplification of properly human processes of social interaction and negotiated meaning. It was only much later that I came to recognise that it was a profoundly novel and creative way of thinking about how an ordinarily qualitatively conceived process can be represented in quantitative terms, but at the time it seemed simply daft, and indeed the course never really properly reflected upon the deeper implications of this model. We quickly passed on to other more apparently sophisticated models that included dimensions of feedback, cultural context and meaning. Then very swiftly we shifted away from diagrams altogether towards the difficult textuality of semiotics, cultural studies and post-modernism, leaving Shannon’s initial diagram as an anomalous and reductive joke.

I wonder now, however, who is getting the last laugh, particularly as more and more aspects of qualitative experience are rendered in logical-quantitative terms. This is probably less a factor of logical-mathematical thinking per se than of a specific neoliberal application of logical quantification, but for the purposes of this paper I will risk speaking more generally. I take this risk partly with the sense that the functional perspective that Shannon’s model demonstrates cannot be reduced to the space of contemporary higher education managerialism. It is something that has a longer history and broader implications. It represents a particular ontological and epistemological framework for making sense of the world that has its basis in the mechanisms of logical and mathematical abstraction.

Micro-Credentialing
The issue obtained clarity for me while attending a whole day seminar on current higher education micro-credentialing initiatives. Micro-credentialing involves conceiving whole qualification programs as discrete portions of attainment that are mapped to national and international curriculum frameworks and standards. So rather than receiving a single overall testamur for a three or four year degree, students undertake any number of micro-credentialed courses from one or more providers that individually demonstrate specific transferable aspects of experience, skill and understanding. These can be subsequently combined to represent an overall level of qualification attainment. I have no objections to this per se. It would seem to provide an effective way of addressing the complex educational needs of contemporary learners, who very often lack either the financial means or the time to commit to longer and sustained degree studies. Just as we currently divide up our curriculum into discrete subjects, why not decompose whole degrees into a set of modular units? After all, this is becoming the norm in all kinds of informal online educational contexts. Yet linked to this, particularly within tertiary education, is a call for standards that can render one micro-credentialed qualification comparable to another. This involves combining a conception of small and discrete educational components with one that envisages effective means to map these components in terms of features of equivalence and transferability. It is this structural association of the discrete and discontinuous with the equivalent and transferable that represents a more thorough form of logical-systemic representation.

The overall purpose of micro-credentialing is to foster a more direct and transparent relationship between tertiary qualifications and employer needs. Students no longer receive an opaque overall qualification with a large number of individual results for particular subjects. Instead, they receive a set of micro-credentials that explicitly indicate particular areas of employer relevant expertise. Micro-credentials represent the attainment of key learning outcomes. They are less discipline and curriculum focused than outwardly oriented towards areas of general competence and capacity. In this sense, they reflect a broad effort to establish a better alignment between tertiary education and the employment market.

I should note that, beyond these straightforward aims, micro-credentialing is linked to efforts to coordinate aspects of the qualification and employment market via block-chain technologies. It is regarded as one component in establishing a universally recognized ledger of individuated labour capacity. This depends upon establishing associated layers of abstract data representation that I lack the scope to adequately consider here, but that are clearly aligned with an overall logical-mathematical systems logic and that are very evidently worth examination in terms of their implications for traditional mechanisms of qualitative evaluation of job applicants and the like.

In an effort to explain the particular value of micro-credentialing, Jon Mott, Chief Learning Officer for Learning Objects (a major US based micro-credentialing provider) gave a keynote lecture for the seminar that drew upon Shannon’s technically focused model of the communication process.

While he never mentioned Shannon directly, there is the same sense of a signal passing from one place to another within an ever-present context of potential signal disruption (noise). In this case the signal is cast as education, and more specifically the educational capacities of graduates, which must pass through the noisy vagaries of current diplomas and transcripts to be imperfectly decoded by employers. Micro-credentialing, in Mott’s view, provides a means of reducing this noise and making levels of attainment more legible for employers. I felt a spark of recognition when I saw this slide. It not only demonstrated how tertiary education is increasingly perceived in very directly functional terms – in terms of instrumental system integration – but also the wider sense of how education is now regarded in fundamentally logical-mathematical terms.

Identity and Equivalence
What do I mean by this precisely? According to Leibniz, logic begins with the thinking of identity: X = X. Something exists as itself. In the midst of this, the thing also obtains the strange potential to be doubled, to be thought not just as one thing but as two things on either side of an equation that are identical. Other philosophers conceive the matter differently. Hegel, for instance, insists that identity is not a pre-existing state, but only emerges through difference – the same encounters its other in order to dialectically establish for its own distinct identity. So the formula becomes something more along the lines of, X = (X ≠NOT X).

The logic of identity has its basis in the determination of discrete entities – and more particularly the identification of the discrete as a fundamental property of things. It also suggests that these discrete things, which may have originally been simply variable and multiple, can now be drawn into delineated relationships of equality and difference that are embodied not only in unique characteristics, but also in shared amenability to abstraction, a shared capacity to be represented as quantities.

Mathematics draws upon this logical foundation. Abstracting from the rich diversity of things, it finds means to represent aspects of the world in terms of relationships between discrete quantities. So, in this case, the blurry complexity of actual real world educational experience and attainment, which is currently embodied in the opaque features of the traditional testamur, obtains clearly identifiable shape in a set of discretely characterised micro-credentials. This is one aspect of logically and mathematically inspired conception of education. The other represents an extension of this orientation to the discrete. It involves searching for mechanisms to make elements of discrete attainment equivalent. So holistic aspects of study become discrete entities that are then mapped to qualification frameworks and standards to ensure that they are properly quantifiable and equivalent. Of course this work of conceiving the equivalent dimensions of educational experience has a much longer history than micro-credentialing. It is embedded, for instance, in the principles of the Australian Qualifications Framework, but micro-credentialing lends this notion of educational equivalence much greater and more rigorously defined force.

If education is increasingly conceived in systemic mathematical terms, in terms particularly of the discrete, the equivalent and the logically articulable, then what are the implications for notions of art education? In my view there are significant tensions that require acknowledgement and consideration.

A Transformed Space
Since the Dawkins reforms, Australian art schools no longer subsist at the margins of tertiary education initiatives and agendas. They are integrated within this larger and rapidly developing space. Arguably, this is less because of any sense of natural fit than because of a pressing need to adhere to the requirements of the enframing system.

Here are just a few ways in which art education seems to have changed through its absorption within the university education system:

  • Shift from atelier style training to university lecture and seminar style delivery.
  • Incorporation of dedicated strands of humanities style history and theory alongside studio theory. This represents, at least partly, a greater emphasis on the development of generic tertiary level critical and conceptual skills and a reduced emphasis on more traditional art based technical and creative skills.
  • Integration of creative art practice within university based research paradigms via the notion of non-traditional research outputs. This involves positioning art practice as research that produces new knowledge.
  • Increasingly confused sense of purpose – shifting from either a consolatory or resistant activist conception of the value of an art school education to one that is framed in terms of an alignment with wider dimensions of neoliberal being – creativity, entrepreneurial capacity, initiative, collaboration, communication, problem solving, etc. In this latter conception, art education appears to model and develop the agile skills needed to survive and thrive in the modern economic world.

I should stress that art education was never specifically considered at the micro-credentialing event, yet there are some obvious implications. The potential restructuring of art education into discrete modules of transferable attainment, and the mapping of these modules to wider qualification frameworks in order to facilitate dimensions of cross-institutional equivalence, may seem relatively minor and incremental developments, but we are reaching a point in which art education – and perhaps the thinking of art more broadly – is fundamentally altered.

This change hinges on how art education is conceived. It involves the consequences of thinking of art education as something that it not just susceptible to quantification and algorithmic calculation, but as something that is fundamentally cast in these terms. Stated in strong terms, art education risks becoming reified into a state of being in which all relation to the particular is lost, in which it is little more than a cypher for everything that it may traditionally have placed in suspension or resisted.

No doubt this sounds naïve, indicative of an anachronistic sense of art education’s critical possibility, so let me attempt to explain in different terms. In the remainder of this essay I want to briefly describe three areas of apparent tension. I consider firstly the relationship of art and aesthetics to what Shannon describes as ‘noise’. My interest is in the ontology of art – its particular way of conceiving its being in the world, which involves precisely an openness and attentiveness to the sphere of noise. Secondly, I consider the issue of multiplicity – how art relates to dimensions of multiplicity and number. This is about the epistemology of art – how art conceives multiplicity without ever completely passing into reified logical mathematical abstraction. Thirdly, I consider art’s capacity to serve as a social model and agent. This addresses the ethical status of art – particularly how art conceives its social identity as a form of mediation. Once again, I am taking the risk here of speaking very generally. I acknowledge that there is no single notion of the nature of art, aesthetics and art education, but there are key features in the Western aesthetic tradition that rub up against how art and art education is currently being positioned. My aim is try to clarify key aspects of this friction.

Noise

While the notion of signal to noise ratio is a modern invention, linked to characteristics of electronic communication, the underlying interest in considering the relationship between a multitude of impressions and the distinct identity of rationally articulated phenomena has a much longer history. It can be found, for instance, as the very basis of Western aesthetic philosophy. In his founding work Aesthetica (1750), the German philosopher, Alexandre Baumgarten, posits the field of aesthetics as a means of acknowledging the realm of sensible experience, which affects us intimately and yet which resists neat logical delineation. Drawing upon Leibniz, who envisages a continuity between the mingled clarity and opacity of sense and the abstraction of logically articulated being, Baumgarten is keen to embrace sensible experience, to value its richness and to find means to trace the features of its hidden, intuitive logic in terms that are properly philosophical. The noisy space of the lived is portrayed as a precondition and presentiment for the emergence of logical differentiation and analysis, but also as space with its own elusive characteristics. It appears ambivalently as both the ground for philosophical thought and as another way of thinking altogether.

In my view aesthetics, art and art education are fundamentally shaped by this orientation – this effort to engage with the rich uncertainly of the sensible manifold, and within this, the complexity, clarity and obscurity of the particular. To try to dispel the noise, to render only the clarity of signal, is precisely what art characteristically avoids. Instead it plays on the relation between clarity and opacity, between motions of clear delineation and intractable specificity.

Within this context of performing a role of maintaining, renewing and transforming the relationship to lived experience, art can never form an adequately predictable communication mechanism. Because it interrogates the conditions of communication – its grounds and modalities – it can never comfortably side with the signal. This is another way of thinking the conventional Kantian notion of the non-instrumental nature of art and aesthetics. It is not that art lacks social value, it is rather that its value lies in disrupting the instrumental relationship as an automatic circuit of abstracted interaction.

In these terms, conceiving art education as a straightforward cypher for flexible and creative engagement in the new economy seems misguided. Art education does not provide this form of equivalence. It is implicitly critical of the whole idea of rendering things equivalent, of imagining that one thing neatly maps to another. This is not to say that the skills and capacities of an art school graduate lack substance (or wider applicability), but to insist that this substance has a rich and noisy particularity that extends beyond, and ultimately questions, any efforts to chart dimensions of transferable equivalence.

Of course equivalence is not only about charting the instrumental transferability of an art school education to wider employment contexts, it is also about envisaging an equivalence between the variety of offerings at different institutions. This depends upon adherence to common qualification standards, which must now arguably inform the character of all specific courses. In this manner, once again, emphasis shifts from the holistically cast particularity of specific institutional curricula, cultures and experiences towards generic and abstractly determined curriculum features. No doubt some kind of balance of imperatives is possible here, but there is a clear risk of a diminution of diversity, with consistency and equivalence gaining priority over varied and idiosyncratically differentiated identity.

Multiplicity

The first volume of Elizabeth Holt’s A Documentary History of Art begins with selection from the Benedictine monk Theophilus’ medieval treatise on artistic practice, Schedula. Theophilus explains in his preface that ‘[a]ll arts are taught by degrees.’ Leaving aside the unlikely possibility that he is referring to university degrees, this suggests that learning to become an artist involves a set of clearly determinate steps.

At one level this may appear to undermine my argument that there is a necessary tension between traditional art education and the mathematical-systemic conceptions evident, for instance, in micro-credentialing. I certainly do not wish to insist upon an essential antagonism between mathematical and logically sequenced procedural thinking and art practice. While they may be in tension – and for all sorts of good reasons often are – there are many points of commonality, intersection and exchange. Both art and mathematics incorporate aspects of abstraction. Both also incorporate aspects of systemic procedure (most obviously evident within contemporary art in the tradition of Conceptualism). They can also both be poetically inspired and oriented towards aesthetic beauty. Nonetheless, logic and mathematics operate more consistently at the level of the general. Although art may regularly attempt a similarly symbolic rigour, it can never quite achieve adequate distance from the noisy texture of the real.

A later section from Schedula suggests this difference between a logical-mathematical and artistic-aesthetic conception. It describes how to apply gold leaf to parchment.

Of Gold Leaf. Take Greek parchment [that is paper], which is made from linen cloth, and you will rub it on both sides with a red colour which is burned from sinoper, that is ochre, very finely ground and dry, and polish it with a beaver’s tooth, or that of a bear or a wild boar, very carefully, until it becomes shining, and that the colour may adhere through friction.

The emphasis here is upon the interaction between a set of materials with particular qualities. What stands out is the diversity of materials and the sense of nuanced intimate engagement; the rubbing, fine grinding and polishing of the gold leaf on the parchment. The process is described step by step, but this is indicative of a human, temporal relation to the materials rather than of a discretely determined, mathematical conception. Overall, there is a narrative of drawing elements of multiple organically and sensibly articulated elements together rather than of elaborating them in specifically abstract and systemic terms. This is signals a difference between the notion of multiplicity and number. Multiplicity suggests an irresolvable sensible plenitude and diversity, whereas number suggests linear order and dimensions of equivalence.

None of this necessarily implies that micro-credentialing cannot accomplish something similar, that it cannot be directed to the development of organically related and particular skills. The sense of potential tension is more contextual and political. The issue is that the fragmentation of education that micro-credentialing entails takes place within a context in which the traditional holistic experiential conception of art education is already affected by the disruption of subjects, lectures, tutorials – by all the various discrete and systemic ways in which university educational experience is divided up and organized. Within this context, micro-credentialing appears as a force that potentially exacerbates this trend. Everything holistic that the atelier model represented risks being further eroded by yet another motion of logical subdivision. This need not be the case, but only by reflecting upon how subdivision can be effectively linked to dimensions of holistic experience – only by reflecting upon an obvious area of tension – can we find the means to sensibly incorporate or reject whatever it is that something like micro-credentialing involves. Perhaps it will even permit some thinking beyond the conventional sense of difference between number and multiplicity, but all of this depends upon some critical work.

Models
Despite, or perhaps precisely because of its focus on the particular, art and aesthetics have regularly been positioned in terms of their capacity to model other things. For Kant, aesthetics serves as a means of indicating an open and intuitive alignment between the apriori features of rational understanding and the endlessly elusive realm of the thing-in-itself (the world as it exists beyond human sense-making). The aesthetic experience of the beauty of a flower, for instance, which is often expressed in terms of its symmetry, etc. is pleasurable precisely because it suggests that the apriori sphere of mathematically logical form can have an existence that exceeds the mind itself, that can appear literally and sensibly before us, but without any need to be decomposed into logical, symbolic terms. Aesthetics serves then as an intimation of an ultimately never verifiable whole in which world and mind align.

Beyond this dimension of epistemological reconciliation, aesthetics also regularly serves as an ethical and political model. In response to the French Revolution, the German writer and philosopher Freidrich Schiller wrote a series of letters entitled On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794). Appalled by how the high-minded political values of liberty, fraternity and equality had degenerated into the violence of the Reign of Terror (1993-4), Schiller argued that any political education of citizens needed to be preceded by something more basic – an education into the realm of feeling and sensibility that would provide the true basis for any genuine lived community. Aesthetics was positioned then as a vital educative force that prepared an essential ground for ethical action.

More recently the French philosopher Jacques Rancierre positions art and aesthetics not simply as a model for enlightened social interaction, but more forcefully as an intrinsically political phenomenon. Art and aesthetics inform a particular ‘distribution of the sensible’ – a particular conformation of the nature, affordances and possibilities of lived experience, with the capacity to both articulate and, in genuine political moments, transform existing social and material relations. Yet even here there is a sense that art and aesthetics are positioned as exemplary, as a dimension of culture and lived experience that attains broader currency and significance when something telling happens. In very typical terms, this at once attaches too much weight to art and aesthetics (expecting them to transform sensible experience generally) while also neglecting what art can be if it is not simply political.

It is always difficult then to regard art and aesthetics in their own terms. They are always signaling something else, always serving as a sign of phenomenological reconciliation or of political ethical being, and always acting as a mediator for other things. This awkward sense of identity is also, of course, linked to the marginalisation of art and aesthetics, which appear at once as hugely significant and utterly insignificant. In this sense – in terms of their complex positioning, inflated egos and lingering sense of irrelevance – art and aesthetics do obtain a distinct self-identity, but one which is characterised precisely by questions of being, status and social purpose.

Beyond this there is the realisation that art and aesthetics, which have always served as models, are now themselves subject to modeling. Shannon’s model provides an example, especially in terms of its underlying faith in the potential to reconceive qualitative processes in quantitative terms – to represent the continuous as discrete, the open as finite and the multiple as numbered. Art and aesthetics may resist this conception, but hardly adequately or convincingly. The contemporary dilemmas of tertiary art education provide an example. It often appears as losing a sense of effective agency – regularly compelled to compromise in order to secure any strands of continuing existence. If now it divides itself up into discrete micro-credential modules, or if it conceives national and international art education qualification standards, or if it presents itself in the most glowingly employable terms, this is less to articulate its own space of modeling than to be modeled by wider tertiary education agendas and initiatives. How can we conceive our scope for agency? How can we link whatever becomes of art education to the tradition of whatever it once was and once imagined itself to be?

Conclusion
This account may seem alarmist. Arguably, none of this really affects art education, which just goes on in roughly the same form as it always has, occasionally better supported, more often worse. All the rhetoric of transferable skills, all the talk of creative industries, all the sense of art education as a cypher for agile existence within the entrepreneurial, portfolio and gig economy, is precisely that, rhetoric; it does not really get to the heart of what we do. We compromise to survive, but without really compromising – or that is the story that we tell ourselves. The key thing that we risk losing in all of this is the capacity to recognise what is happening – to speak clearly of the implications of new models. This need not involve a nostalgic return to the qualitative. It need not demand an unviable insistence on studio-based holistically experiential art education. It need not even require an avoidance of standards of course equivalence or the pursuit of instrumental, socially and economically geared models of art. What is needed, however, if nothing else, is a historically informed reflection on implications – some kind of value focused understanding of what an art education represents and can do.

My fear when I attended the recent micro-credentialing event was of changes that are occurring by stealth, in terms an unreflective logic of system optimisation that undermines all potential for criticism – that positions criticism as something impertinent, or at best as something that can happen later or elsewhere. It is this above all that needs to be questioned. I am not opposed to logically and mathematically inspired models of contemporary education. I can even recognise their provocative value, but we must find the means to respond lucidly and effectively to this provocation if anything worthwhile is to emerge.

I’d rather not conclude, however, with the standard admonition that ‘critical reflection is required.’ It seems to me that something more positive is needed. There is little use in just lamenting the loss of a particular idealised notion of art education, or of lamenting that that this loss is scarcely recognised or reflected upon, we need pursue options that provide us with greater proactive agency.

Within this context, and leaving aside the much bigger issue of how to engage with and reorient a narrowly logical-mathematical conception of the nature and value of tertiary art education, permit me to conclude with three quick, counter-intuitive and very sketchily described suggestions for responding to the (not quite immediate) prospect of micro-credentialing:

  • Explore and embrace new online modular and distributed educational forms. Question the need for the traditional studio experience, with its face-to-face teaching and actual student cohorts. Explicitly engage with this space of apparent loss. Or look for ways that micro-credentialed modularity can establish new experiential contexts and communities that extend the nature and scope of conventional art education and art practice generally.
  • Devise associated qualification standards that explicitly acknowledge and provide scope for a diversity of pedagogical approaches and institutional cultures. Celebrate the potential for abstract description. Allow the standards to be entirely general and to have only minimal implications for specific aspects of curriculum, teaching delivery and learning experience.
  • Pursue ways of conceiving art education in directly useful (equivalent, transferable and adaptable) terms. Insist that artists belong in banks, in the public service, running businesses, etc., but couch this usefulness in terms of engaging with and drawing value from dimensions of noise. Position art practice as a means of creatively thinking through the interaction between signal, medium and context – less to eliminate noise than to acknowledge its necessity and more open, critical-productive potential.
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Loom 91b

Loom June 2018

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Mountain (literal)

Loom June 2018

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Mountain (Agnes Martin)

At first glance it is difficult to detect a relationship between Agnes Martin’s 1960s minimalist (or possibly abstract expressionist) paintings and the titles of the works, which often reference conventionally picturesque aspects of the natural world – ‘flower’, ‘mountain’, etc.  The works take shape as meticulously crafted grids, notable more for their subtle and curiously embodied relation to abstraction than any sense of reference to particular beautiful or sublime natural things.  Yet somehow – by both playing at and avoiding reference – the works establish a complex and evocative dialogue between minimal grid and ostensibly alien referent.

My focus is on her ‘mountain’ works particularly, and less with the details of these works, or what Martin may have meant by them, than with the questions they pose about the nature of mountain experience.  While there is a self-evident link between a minimalist aesthetic sublime and the sublimity of mountains, my interest is in layers of correspondence that are less iconic than phenomenological – related to features of indirection, pattern and performance.  I argue that the interplay of repetition and subtle, almost imperceptible differentiation in the paintings engages with intimate aspects of mountain experience – the iterative inhalation of breath, the search for lines, the recognition of space as a macro and micro level field of affordance.

Agnes Martin, Mountain, 1960

The paintings provide a means of thinking mountains differently – not as exterior realms of otherness, but as profoundly lived and imagined spaces, always already covered in real and virtual infrastructure – roads, data trails, and lines of least resistance.  I argue that long before the mountain is abstracted into a grid, it is already abstracted, it is already subject to a work of repetition and projection.  It is always already more than it appears to be.  I link this multi-modal conception of mountains and mountain experience to aspects of Martin’s ‘mountain’ paintings and to my own experience as a rock-climber, walker and artist.  I consider particularly how my own work alternates between literal interaction with outdoor spaces (mainly mountains) and gestures of apparent distanciation, involving indoor practices of writing and computer programming.  Rather than regard these as entirely separate fields of activity, I argue that close engagement with mountain environments summons abstraction in the same manner that the computational line summons the lived step.

——

In response to the first wave of British Alpine mountaineering, the British art critic John Ruskin famously argued that the Alps were better appreciated from the valleys than the peaks, suggesting that climbing represented a desecration of the ‘cathedrals of the earth’.  Since then, the scope and scale of leisure based engagement with mountain environments has vastly increased.  The world’s mountain regions are more and more characterised by complex networks of routes, trails and trajectories and are increasingly integrated within wider data and communication systems.  Via these means, mountain experience has changed for us.  It is no longer so remote and separate.  It is no longer exclusively informed by a rhetoric of sublimity.  Mountain experience has become more intense and immersive and mountains themselves have become less neatly separable from features of the modern world.

Thoughts:

  • it is not actually a binary choice between sublimity and immersion, they are linked in complex ways.  There is an interplay between them – a capacity both to make externally visible and experiential.
  • I was lost early morning on the Larapinta trail.  I had a headtorch that normally worked to follow the track, but crossing a dry creek I missed a less visible exit and became lost.  Usually crossing creeks there were yellow metal trail markers.  I struggled to see them.  So I had to sit for several hours until it became light before I could re-find the trail.  The whole place changed when there was no longer a track.  Every boulder and stunted tree had a new resonance as I tried to read clues into an obscure landscape.  Before I sat down and waited, I made a number of efforts to walk 50m or so in particular directions in the hope that I’d stumble across the track or a trail marker.  I had only my footprints in the sand and rough memory of dark clumps of bush and lines of boulders to find my around – and everything became increasingly obscure.  I imagined that I could see the lights of Alice Springs glowing in the distance, but not sure what I was seeing.  Dawn eventually rose from that direction… What was apparent here, was the attempt to recognise signs – to follow the concrete abstractions that make navigation possible, but instead there was this amorphous and confusing darkness.  In some ways this was one of my most intense and memorable experience on the trail – when I lost it altogether and when time, and my predictable motion across the landscape – was suspended.  Confused space, suspended time.
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Descartes (again)

I think therefore I am.

I know that this has been considered innumerable times, I know that I need to read much more on this inexhaustible topic, but still can’t avoid making a minor, ill-educated comment.  The statement adopts the form of a logical deduction.  The experience of thinking demonstrates the necessity of existence.  Yet it seems to me that existence is less something to be logically deduced than a predicament that immediately affects us.  It is a constitutive condition rather than something that either requires or has the capacity to be logically deduced. Whichever way one decides on the relationship between thought and being, being and thinking persist.

Actually more to the point is the strangeness of what is constitutive for us – thinking being, being that is living and self-aware.  All manner of existence is inanimate.  Thinking less establishes the necessity of being than represents a curious addition.  As thinking beings we have no sense of simple existence – of existence without thought.  And yet ultimately everything that we think and do is shaped by inanimate forces that exceed us.  The hardest thing for us to think is that a dimension of unthinking objectivity ultimately provides the basis for our subjective experience.

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Following (recalled)

A few years ago I wrote a brief manifesto defending the value of processes of following:

A MANIFESTO OF FOLLOWING
What are the implications of following? Where does following lead?
Instead of trying at every instant to do something new.
Instead of commenting wryly on the past.
Instead of feeling stuck.
Instead of lamenting the disappearance of the future.
Instead of attending to a restrictive past.
Instead of strictly following.
Instead of deliberately going astray.
Instead of imagining that following is a simple process.
Instead of imagining that following is especially hard.
We follow. We follow following. We follow following wherever it leads.

I wrote this partly in terms of a creek walking project.  A small group of us were walking up local creeks.  We were following watercourses from the sea inland as far as we could manage, encountering various barriers along the way – weeds, roads, fences, drains, etc. Within this context the notion of following was linked to the affordances of urban and suburban creeks – their intermittent capacity to be walked, but I was also referring more generally to the creative potential of following.

Following involves repetition.  It involves adhering to the contours of an existing line or path.  It does not initiate something ex nihilo, but takes up with the existent – in this case not with a sense of irony, but with an attitude of humility and curiosity.  The humility is nothing self-negating.  It simply attends to what is before it without any feeling of regret – without any sense that something is missing.

Following adheres – lightly, not absolutely – to existing lines.  It waywardly follows them, that it is to say its following also creates a line  – one that no matter how one tries is never exactly identical to the line followed.  In this sense, following includes the necessity of passing (not deliberately heading) astray.

My overall point: to trace the place of the non-original within the aesthetic, to recognise it as source of movement and inspiration.

Now to become literal again, I envisage a walking project that sets out to follow every trail in a small section of local bush.  I live in the city of Wollongong, which runs in a long line between the sea and a steeply rising sandstone escarpment. The lower flanks of the escarpment are a dense mix of temperate rainforest, drier sclerophyll forest and patches of indeterminate weediness (mainly lantana).  Hardly iconic mountain landscape, but the escarpment runs to over 1000 feet in places and counts as a mountain space for we beach-hugging locals.  What would this involve?  How would I set about doing it?  What is a trail and how can it be recognised and determined?  Beyond this, how can this experience of trail discovery and walking be documented?  How can it be represented?  Does it take shape as a work, or only as the vestiges of a work?

And this represents a different relation to the mountain environment – here regarded not as an alien, sublime space, but as something already well discovered, as something thoroughly traversed from the outset.

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Silly

I think therefore I have the capacity to entertain the possibility that I may not exist.

[Every so often impressions of consciousness are construed as coherent existence. A chair does not ask itself if it exists, nor does it need to think to exist – of course then we have an argument about the nature of existence.  We distinguish between sensible and insensible souls, subjects and objects, but not going there…]

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Endless Prospect of Reading

Of course, everything I have written so far about Ranciere betrays layers of ignorance, so I have set myself a program of (constantly expanding readings):

  • Kant: must make my way through Critique of Pure Reason to get a grasp on how the aesthetic figures within Kant’s sense of the relationship between the conditions of experience and the unity of consciousness – or, in other terms, how aesthetics figures within his ontology and epistemology, rather than simply serving as an external and posterior supplement (the Critique of Judgement).
  • clarify the metaphysical aesthetic tradition – particularly stemming from Leibniz: the notion of aesthetics as representing a mediation with sensible confusion, with an intractable multiplicity (an infinite and infinitesimal excess).
  • clarify the empirical and pragmatist traditions – Hume to Dewey.
  • on this basis review strands of pre-Socratic philosophy to trace out aesthetic features that relate not to art, mimesis, beauty, etc., but instead the relationship between truth and appearance, unity and multiplicity, repetition and emergence.  Not clear on this yet, but pursue this in an effort to conceive aesthetics as closely aligned or intrinsically linked to ontology and epistemology.
  • pursue Plato’s double conception of aesthetics as both improper doubling (mimesis) and proper intoxication (music).  Memory very hazy here.
  • trace the implications of Hegel’s aesthetics, particularly its bracketing of our response to the natural world – its exclusive emphasis on art; and then Adorno’s re-emphasis on nature and Derrida’s meditation on the mediation between art and objectivity (Signeponge – Ponge’s Notes on the Pinewoods).
  • read up on the phenomenological tradition of aesthetics – particularly Heidegger and Gadamer.  Heidegger holds on to art but rejects aesthetics.  What if we attempted the reverse?  Could this prove a more effective way of rethinking the possibilities of art?  But I agree with the fundamental idea of a layer of primary experience that exceeds all efforts of reflective cognition.  How does this align with Leibniz?
  • explore the aesthetics of post-object socially engaged art as a case study of issues and dilemmas affecting attempts to think art/non-art at once.
  • and continue reading Ranciere!

The risk in all of this is that I will never find time to develop any of my own ideas, and instead make endless poor efforts to catch up with and summarise other people’s ideas.  Must accept that I will never reach the point in which I am properly across the field and just get on with writing stuff.  Some level of ignorance is an inevitable condition for thought, rather than a state that can ever be adequately superceded.  Curiosity and reading are fine, but not at the expense of endlessly forestalling the capacity to write.

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Defining Aesthetics

In a note on the tradition of modern aesthetics, Ranciere offers a definition of the field:

‘Aesthetics’ designates two things in this work: a general regime of the visibility and the intelligibility of art and a mode of interpretative discourse that itself belongs to the forms of this regime. (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p.11)

Aesthetics then is tied to art, and to modern art particularly, in two senses: it relates to a specific historical regime of art’s sensible identity, which Ranciere delineates in semi-circular fashion as ‘aesthetic’; and it indicates a mode of discourse that emerges from within this regime and aims to make sense of it.  In more simple terms, it refers to both the sensible and intelligible forms of modern and contemporary art and also the efforts to describe and account for those forms.

Yet elsewhere Ranciere lends aesthetics a more general currency:

[A]esthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense – re-examined perhaps by Foucault – as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. (The Politics of Aesthetics, p.13)

In this sense it is not limited to the Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, modern, post-modern and contemporary world.  Here ‘aesthetics’ aligns more closely with Baumgarten’s original sense of the term, as signalling a focus on sensible experience generally (1735).  But of course Baumgarten positions sense differently – not as something that subsists at an a priori level, but rather as a terrain of confused sensible impressions that only gradually finds its way to intelligible, rational thought.  Here his model is Leibniz.  Clearly Kant’s notion of the a priori comes later.  And what are the implications of this shift.  If Leibniz conceives a complex mediation with the multiplicity of the sensible world, Kant draws mediation inward and makes it self-constituting?  Nothing is precisely experienced (intelligibly experienced or generally experienced?) that is not already there within ourselves.

And I am unsure which of these two positions that Ranciere adopts.  Does ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appear as a field of contestation, in which the sensible world, and our capacity to sense, is endlessly renegotiated and redistributed, or does it solidify into historically inculcated a priori forms that represent a given, paradigmatic and intransigent distribution?

But, in any case, the key thing here is that Ranciere employs the term aesthetics in a variety of ways – and in more ways than he acknowledges.  Most evidently, at times the term pertains to the general problem of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ and at other times to the particular dilemmas of modern art.  My particular interest is how the notion subtly expands and contracts – broadening here and there to encompass key aspects of politics and then regularly refocusing on the common sense space of art.  My sense, however, is that another possibility is available.  Instead of returning to art, there is the possibility, via the notion of aesthetics, of shifting away from the endless contradictions of art.  This involves considering the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the aesthetic, rather than, for instance, permitting Hegel’s bracketing of aesthetics original and more general meaning as an inquiry into the nature of sensible experience.

I wonder what aesthetics would look like, for example, if it also sought its basis in the debates of the Pre-Socratics about the arche (fundamental principle) and the logos (word, or true account)?  I wonder if, in reaching back to philosophical origins, aesthetics payed less exclusive attention to Plato’s exclusion of the poets and Aristotle’s conception of drama, and instead considered the words of the Muses in Hesiod’s Theogony (735BC:

Rustic shepherds, worthless reproaches, mere stomachs, we know how to say many lies like the truth, and, whenever we wish, we know how to tell the truth.

Here after all are key features of the aesthetic – base existence, sensation, appetite and the uncertainties of being and truth.

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‘The Distribution of the Sensible’

The following are a set of questions about Ranciere’s notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’.

The term ‘distribution’ suggests a work of differential apportionment – aspects of sensibility are made available here, but not there, and to some, but not others.  The definite article ‘the’ suggests that the distribution is a definite state of affairs that has happened.  Although the origins of the distribution is not explained, the definite article suggests that an account of origins is possible.  The notion of distribution can be read both in terms of neutrality (a given statistical distribution), it can also suggest an aspect of agency (a general distributing the spoils of war among his troops).  Is the distribution of the sensible simply an emergent state of affairs or is it an expression of the machinations of power?

Why the emphasis on the ‘sensible’?  Is the term to be understood literally or metaphorically?  Ranciere regularly employs the example of disadvantaged social voices that cannot be heard.  Is it that we literally don’t hear them or, more metaphorically, that we disregard them?  It would seem to be less an issue of how sensibility is distributed (the audibility of particular voices) than whether or not we choose to acknowledge and engage with the disadvantaged.  We hear the homeless person on the streets begging for money, but walk straight by, pretending not to hear.  In any case, if some voices attain prominence it is less because they are somehow more audible, but because they are selected, recorded and broadcast.  The difference is less precisely at the level of sensibility than of selective, socially inscribed currency.

The notion of the sensible seems to point to something more materially bound than ideology, yet when Ranciere’s notion of the sensible is interrogated at a detailed material-experiential level it seems to fall apart.  Perhaps this is because I am taking the term too literally?  I am unsure.

In some ways the notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appears as a more materially inclined version of linguistic determinism and/or linguistic relativism (I’m unsure which because it remains unclear the extent to which social agents can experience beyond the given sensible-experiential categories without recourse to the radical space of the political and the aesthetic).  Instead then of being unable to think beyond the conceptual constraints of a given language, we are unable to experience things beyond the frame of a given distribution of the sensible.  Yet this seems too crude.  After all, Ranciere devotes a whole book to describing how elements of the 19thc working class found the means, despite their onerous working and living conditions, to become artists and intellectuals.  They worked all day and then refused to sleep at night.  They developed other lives against the grain of the extant distribution of the sensible.  So Ranciere must conceive scope for resistance.  His view must then be more of a sensible relativism…

I guess, just to be as clear as possible, although I acknowledge culturally informed modes of sensible experience, I’d tend to avoid overstating their determining influence, particularly at the level of fundamental sense perception.  While sensible fields and affordances take culturally legible shape, there is always – and intrinsically – a potential for excess, for things to be experienced differently.  This occurs not only in privileged moments of resistance, but all the time, based upon all the complex interests and interactions that constitute sensible experience.  A gallery is a place for quietly viewing art, but it is also a place for kids on a school excursion to muck up, for lonely people to brush up against others, for people without an umbrella to escape the rain.  No sensibly distributed space is ever restricted to the given distribution.

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But Aesthetics is Modern

I can imagine an objection to my previous post: there may be different periods of art but that does not indicate that the notion of the aesthetic is anything more than a peculiarly modern phenomenon, emerging during the Enlightenment as a reflection on the gap between the intelligible and the sensible world and then developing into a reflection on the complex dilemmas of modern and contemporary art.

In this sense, I am mistaken to imagine a correspondence at the level of aesthetics between Ranciere’s ethical, representational and aesthetic regimes of art.  Only the latter regime is properly aesthetic.  Only the latter addresses the disjunction between modern art’s utopian promise and its institutional delineation and alienation.  So if there is also an art of maintenance, recovery and care, this need not imply that it is aesthetic.  It may simply be a legacy of the earlier ethical regime of art.

Yet this seems to confuse two issues, the nature of art and aesthetics, and its historical periodisation (or lack therof, since in Ranciere’s view there is only modern aesthetics – the qualifier ‘modern’ becoming effectively redundant).  The problem, in my view, is that Ranciere is forced to bracket a great deal of what counts as art in the contemporary world as essentially non-aesthetic, in order to defend a notion of the aesthetic as being associated with rare moments in which the sensible world is redistributed.  It is not adequate to argue that every other moment of art is simply a legacy of the ethical or representational regimes of art, or simply lacking in any disruptive force.  There are plainly other interests in contemporary art that need to be addressed – interests that are not simply oriented towards the reconfiguration of sensible experience.

Ranciere distinguishes two main tactics of contemporary art: the strategy of the sublime, in which the unrepresentable is prefigured in order to order to signal the impossibility of art’s reconciliation with the world, and to preserve the hope of some radical beyond; and the communitatarian, relational strategy of dissolving art into everyday life, subverting art’s autonomy and the privileged character of artistic creation.  Yet are these the only two major strategies?  They make sense to me because I am a product of this western critical art tradition, but what of all the other contemporary art?  What of the post-colonial and indigenous art that is also contemporary, but that cannot be so neatly reduced to these two sets of aims.  Take western desert painting from Australia.  Is this work fundamentally focused on post-Enlightenment aesthetic dilemmas, or does it have its own interests and concerns?  It can be read in terms of the sublime and in terms of relational, socially-engaged practice, but this can hardly adequately charaterise what is at stake in this work.  Would it make more sense then to regard it as a kind of anachronistic throw-back to the ethical regime of art?  Should it be removed from aesthetics altogether?  This is only seems to deny the complexity of the present (of multiple presents, multiple arts, multiple aesthetics).  There is a need, in my view, to conceive the aesthetic in more open terms, to remain sensitive to historical difference but to less strictly enforce historical boundaries (particularly when they threaten to consign aspects of the present to the past, effectively silencing them).

In any case, finally, what accounts for the shift from the ethical to the representational to the aesthetic regimes of art?  If they are historical categories – if they don’t also have a curious trans-historical force – then there must be a means of accounting for the transition from one to another.  And how can this be explained if it entails a radical shift in apriori experiential categories?  Presumably these shifts occurred beyond the frames of art (however conceived), affecting much larger conditions of experience.  Perhaps they represent the shift from the ancient civic world (of slavery, of obligation, of religious instruction) (the ethical regime of art) to the pre-industrial mercantile world (the representational regime of art) to the modern industrial and post-industrial world of global capitalism (the aesthetic regime of art).  But then these periods appear similar to Althusserian ideological formations – despite some relative autonomy, they appear as cloudy cyphers of underlying social-economic structures.  I am having trouble making sense of the notion of ‘distribution of the sensible’.  How material are these distributions?  How hermetically sealed? How open?  And if subject to redistribution, then on what basis?  On the basis of their own social-material logic (the logic of resistance) or on the basis of wider changes that make ‘aesthetic’ change (change at the level of sensible conditions) possible?

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Ranciere

My sense of Ranciere’s aesthetic theory is that it curiously both overvalues and devalues the field.  At one level, aesthetics is associated with the ‘distribution of the sensible’ – the social regimes of sense that structure our capacity to experience the world (to hear, see, touch, taste and smell it).  In this manner aesthetics obtain a fundamental political dimension.  It shapes our underlying political affordances – our capacity for political intervention and self-determination: so that only those voices that can be heard matter, only those images that can be seen, only those modes of experience that can gain sympathetic currency.  At another level, however, aesthetics is understood more narrowly as representing the particular modern, complex, knotted configuration of art, with all its awkward efforts to both erase the difference from ordinary life and to set itself utterly apart.  Ranciere shifts then between a general philosophical notion of aesthetics and a specific historically informed conception of the contradictory space of contemporary art.  It is in the difficult relation between these two concepts of aesthetics – and in an effort to link them together – that Ranciere ultimately restricts the aesthetic, like the political, to moments when something definitely happens, when the current regime of sensibility is unsettled and redistributed.  There is everywhere the ‘primary’ aesthetic of a distribution of the sensible and innumerable examples of contemporary art, but only the occasional moment when the aesthetic takes shape as a significant event – a meta-political event that reshapes the conditions of sensible experience.

So aesthetics is peculiarly cast – it obtains a very broad sway, but only obtains vibrant identity in its uncertain irruptive moments.  Which makes me wonder about all of those other moments, all of those other times when the aesthetic is sleeping.  Is it bound up in nothing more than reinforcing existing regimes?  Does the aesthetic have another mode, in which like a blanket it covers over everything, keeping all our senses warm without allowing them any freedom? Or is there a more positive possibility?  Could it be, for instance, that there is no clear line between obedience and resistance?  Could it be that the sensible is constantly being redistributed and that their are multiple modes of redistribution – not all of them violent or evident in terms of rupture?  Could it be that there is no iron clad regime of the sensible – that the sensible is more open and pervious than Ranciere envisages?  More specifically, it seems to me that art is as much about care, repetition and maintenance as it is about resistance.  Prior to modern society, the fundamental problem was less of mobilising change than of holding on to the past. Things quite simply disappeared unless there were cultural methods set in place to deliberately retain them.  A great deal of art and aesthetics is better explained within the context of shaping contexts and forms of experience that manifest and reinforce continuity, than in terms of ‘dissensus’ and disruption.  While Ranciere acknowledges this in defining an earlier ‘ethical regime of art’ that has a focus on social cohesion and integration, he nonetheless still associates the aesthetic proper with moments of rupture.  In this manner, the ethical regime is positioned as pre-aesthetic.  My point is that rather than making a historical, periodic delineation, it may be better to seek out the ‘ethical’ within contemporary art – not only in affirmative art, not only in the art that is not properly ‘aesthetic’, but also within the art of rupture.  What is it, after all, that moments of sensible redistribution demonstrate if not, very often, a ground of experience that the modern world undermines and threatens?  Beneath gestures of aesthetic radicalism, there are often profoundly conservative motives.  ‘Conservative’ in the best sense of the word.

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Loom 2018

Loom engine beginning to take new shape with a dedicated Bezier drawing program to create more complex polygons and the capacity to transform 2D into 3D shapes.

Here are three render samples.  Playing around with the idea of making something out of negative text statements.  I created the text in the Bezier drawing program and then recursively subdivided the text in Loom.  The final image plays with a standard iconic human form silhouette.

BTW: these are low resolution samples (actual output is 9000X9000 pixels (upwards))

No In, No Out

No Mountains, No Valleys

No More Sunsets

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Some Time

Close to a decade ago, I gave up programming. I figured that I could do no more – certainly not without becoming more mathematically literate. I was also sick of the hours of staring at the screen. I wanted to go outside. I wanted to walk up hills. I wanted to explore other (lived) processes.

However, I’ve recently returned to programming. I’ve returned to finish some projects – or to push them a bit further. I’m focusing particularly on developing the Loom subdivision engine.

I’ve been surprised how easily I’ve found it to get back into programming – not only the arcane syntax of Java and Scala, but also the whole mind-set needed to make sense of complex data structures and algorithms. It all seems so familiar, as though I have scarcely been away – like an alcoholic that only has to taste liquor for the addiction to return in full.

I’d like to say more about this eventually, but just here I want to mention a bug that I solved this morning. I had been wrestling with it most of the weekend, running endless println statements to try to trace where the values were going astray (the experience of debugging is also very familiar to me). Anyway, I finally found the problem. I had an overall manager class that managed a whole complex Bezier drawing system. I’d assumed that I’d need to create an instance of this class when I was loading existing drawings from XML files, but it turned out that the class was already instanced at a higher level in the program. I was then referring to two instances of an overall manager, which each represented aspects of the loaded drawings. They were strange coextensive doubles that had unclear implications in the same drawing space. They were intersecting alternate worlds, each withdrawing (providing null data or wrong indexes) just when they were needed.

I only had to change one line and it was all gone. The whole program worked. The hardest thing to do is to examine an intractable problem with open mind, to not make assumptions that lead me astray.

Bezier drawing app for Loom

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Aesthetics

Aesthetics is not fundamentally about discriminating between the ugly and the beautiful, art and non-art. Aesthetics is not fundamentally about beauty or art, these are simply allied concepts. Aesthetics engages a space of mediation.

For the 17th century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, the field of aesthetics explores the complex relationship between sensible experience and knowledge – between corporeal and conceptual dimensions of being and understanding. Drawing upon the philosophy of Leibniz (and against Cartesian dualism), Baumgarten describes a continuity between the sphere of lived experience and abstract thought. The confused complexity of the sensible provides the basis for efforts of differentiation, discrimination and logical delineation to emerge. There is less a binary divide between body and mind than a difficult realm of coexistence and negotiation. In this sense, aesthetics is not about the sensible alone, but about the medial relationship between the sensible and the conceptual.

Of course there is no need to adhere to this original conception of aesthetics. If I pursue it here, it is because it may prove valuable in terms of rethinking the field of aesthetics against the grain of current conceptions. Apart from removing it from a quasi judicial notion of arbitration between the ugly and the beautiful, art and non-art, it also enables aesthetics to slip free of a range of contemporary impasses linked to efforts to distinguish its proper characteristics. If the aesthetic is less a determinable space than a field of questioning and mediation, then it may discover a new social relevance.

And this is not only via any efforts towards philosophical lucidity. It is also by recognising the limits of lucidity. Aesthetics does not simply lucidly take shape as resistance. It does not endlessly broach novelty. It is as embroiled in repetition and consensus as it is “dissensus” (Ranciere). If anything, it suggests the potential of unreflective gestures to enliven and to undermine (from within) totalised realities.

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Budawangs

I envisage a project that involves myself and later others walking up into the Budawangs mountain ranges, stopping here and there for a few hours, a day or several days to form small camps and read and transcribe short books.

The Budawangs are south and inland of Milton Ulladulla. I’d focus the project around slowly ascending one of the most prominent Budawangs summits, the Castle.

I envisage each camp as a small raised platform with basic items. Platforms are supported on poles. Platforms are just big enough for an adult person to lie down full length. They also have room for a small box that contains vital items – food, paper, writing implements, a light, and most importantly a book. The book is for reading, transcribing and commenting upon. I’m thinking of something like the Monadology by Leibniz. It’s only thirteen pages long and it’s broken up into very short sections – only a paragraph long each. So philosophical or short literary works – focusing on experience, reflection, action and aesthetics.

Above the platform is a suspended canvas tarpaulin for shade and to keep out the rain.

Visitors walk up into the forest to the various camps and spend time at the platforms – perhaps a couple days, perhaps only a few hours. They can go on their own or they can go as a group. They find their way via sets of cryptic instructions – as though following a treasure map.

Every camp will have already been visited, but with only a single trace – a white, wooden weather-proof box containing a book and a commentary. I will have been the first visitor at each camp.

Each visitor or set of visitors are expected to set up the camp – assembling the poles, platforms and tarpaulins. They carry everything with them. They discover light means of fixing the poles – perhaps by pushing them into the ground or strapping them to trees and rocks. They ensure that the platforms are level. They suspend the tarpaulin at an appropriate height above the platform, leaving room to lie down beneath, sit or perhaps even stand.

Groups of people are free to create a single platform or a whole set of individual platforms.

People can replace my suggested books with their own. Monadology is just a suggestion. The books need to be short. People need time to transcribe them entirely and to add their own commentary. They leave the commentary behind when they move on.

They proceed up through the series of camps to the top of the Castle.

At the end of the project all of the boxes are collected from the forest and displayed as an installation, but with none of the books, transcriptions or commentaries visible. Instead they are contained in the boxes.

Note: there is a roughly 40 km drive in via a rough and corrugated dirt road to the starting point for the walk up the Castle. The walk starts down low beside a creek, leads through a patch of rainforest, then quickly up into dry sclerophyll forest. After a couple of hours it ascends to a steep conglomerate cliff line and traverses beneath to a large cave. There is then another long climb to a final high layer of sandstone cliffs. The final section of the ascent is surprisingly tricky. A gentle but very exposed set of slabs provide access to the northern tail of the mountain. From there a 800 m walk follows the narrow escarpment summit to the southern end, which provides an expansive view past Byangaree walls and Pigeon House mountain to the coast.

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Notes

Leibniz introduces the uncertain space of apperception.
This can be related to the sphere of art and aesthetics.
Perhaps it is the prefix ‘a’ that is especially pertinent?
In the sense of ‘no, not, without, away from, negative’.
Apperception represents a displacement within perception – not a negation so much as a reflective doubling. (But perhaps also the possibility of a doubling of cognition).
Art as doubling – the doubling of any action.
Not quite repetition, because all codified action is in some sense repeated.
But rather doubled to introduce some element of distance.
Mimetic doubling, expressive doubling.
Intoxicated loss only becomes art when it obtains form?
Significant form is that sense of art obtaining a concrete reflective shape.
Not necessarily mimetic reflection – though it may be – but more a formal reflection, a structured pause that moves away from the thing, the event, the experience, the thought itself.
Although there need not be a referent as such.
Art finds means of distancing and displacing – it partakes of this motion, even if it cannot exclusively possess it.
I cannot avoid thinking in a modern context where the separation is as much social and political as it is formally determined.
Social practice introduces a displacement within the fabric of all kinds of other modes of action and sense-making. This displacement affects both art and everything else that it engages with.
Asocial Apractice – distancing both the social and the practical through an Aart that refuses to remain separate and ineffectual. All categories are questioned, but in such a way that none are directly undermined. Art retains a capacity to pause and displace, while social practice, even if staged, is nonetheless conceived as real and consequential.

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Question(s)

At one level, I can conceive the aesthetic in particular terms, but then quickly discern other possibilities. I am tempted, for instance, by the 18th century notion of the aesthetic as concerned with the realm of sensible experience, but am also hesitant to portray the aesthetic as preconceptual or radically disengaged from language and understanding. Taking another step, the aesthetic can possibly be conceived as a space of hesitation and contradiction – in which sense and concept (as well as freedom and determination) intersect in unexpected ways. This positions the aesthetic as a form of unsettled (and politically charged) apperception, involving a meta-level awareness of mediation – clearly a very modern conception. While arguably there are really only ever modern conceptions of aesthetics, we tend conceive the aesthetic more broadly – to recognise its relevance, for example, to interpreting traditional craft ‘art-making’ practices. The latter demonstrate a different aesthetic conception focused on continuity and aligned with processes of cultural maintenance (rather than disruption).

Perhaps these tendencies are not so opposed? Perhaps the contemporary concern with medial complexity and non-reconciliation (the lack of integrated experience and identity) represents, at least partly, a lament for earlier more holistic experiential and aesthetic modalities?

[Deeper tension evident here between an historical and trans-historical conception of aesthetics – both alternatives problematic. Former probably preferable, but also more pointedly in need of careful unpicking and criticism (in order to question simple-minded relativism).]

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Aesthetic Mediation

We shift now from focusing on the artistic medium as the bridge to dimensions of experience that exceed rational forms of understanding to focusing on experience itself as a medial condition. There is no longer a need to posit the materiality of a medium to vouchsafe our relation to the lived world – to support it precisely through a necessary alienation. We have made the alienation intimate. We can do without prosthetics. Walking, seeing, touching, imagining, remembering, etc. all reveal dimensions of mediation themselves. Presence is never truth, nor is it simply self-present. There are always layers, tensions, complications, abrasions. The aesthetic is not simply about art, nor about beauty, it is about the play of lived mediation. Art and beauty are simply codified instances – and, if anything, they distract from the genuine potential of aesthetics, which draws upon and is enmeshed within confusion and uncertainty.

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Aesthetic Dust

While browsing through books on aesthetics in the UOW library, I came across Eighteenth Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art (Mattick, P. (ed.), 1993). Bound in black and covered in a thick layer of dusk, the book had only ever had a single loan (in 1995). Bit concerned the arguments would prove dated, but decided to give it a go.

Mattick’s introduction sets the tone for the collection, emphasising – in a standard critical manoeuvre – the gap between nature and culture. The book is couched as an intervention in a complacent field. Aesthetics has for too long imagined a capacity to universalise, regarding itself as a domain of human commonality and consistent critical inquiry. Questioning the latter particularly, Mattick stresses historical discontinuities between modern and ancient aesthetics, arguing that the Greek philosophical tradition had neither a clear sense of art as a distinct social (or experiential) sphere or of beauty as a distinct quality that can be precisely distinguished from fitness for purpose, rational proportion, etc.

The collection of essays in this volume aim to historicise aesthetics. Many examine how modern conceptions of the field (from Baumgarten onwards) are socially inflected – how they work to reconcile dimensions of subjectivity and universality, freedom and determination, sensible experience and rational cognition within the context of new paradigms of social, economic, political and cultural organisation. They position modern aesthetics as an historically legible discursive formation that requires close critical interrogation. The best essays, however, are less concerned to deconstruct 18th C aesthetics in terms of its social and ideological blindness than to tease out the complexity of the field – and to demonstrate that the contemporary critique risks misrecognising the tradition; portraying it as naive when it is actually more complex and sophisticated than we imagine. There is a tension then in the book between reading 18th C aesthetics in terms of modern critical debates and reading it in its own terms.

In my view, the articles that are open to the alterity of 18th C aesthetics are much more interesting. Very informative article, for instance, by Jeffrey Barnouw on how Baumgarten’s notion of aesthetics as the field concerned with aspects of sensible experience (rather than conceptual understanding) was informed by earlier notions of the value of the sensible intuition of inexpressible qualities and particularly by Leibniz’s conception of sensation as a sphere of clear but indistinct ideas (a transitional space between the confused flow of sense data and higher order aspects of cognition). Within this context, it becomes evident that 18th C aesthetics had wider interests than simply art or the experience of beauty (or the sublime). It was fundamentally about conceiving the mediation between lived reality and dimensions of imagination, memory, coherent action and understanding.

The most interesting article is by David Summers – ‘Why did Kant call taste a “common sense”‘. Whereas there is an obvious temptation to be suspicious of any notion of common sense (and to misread it in terms of contemporary debates), Summers demonstrates that Kant describes not an order of naturalised understanding, but rather a more general capacity of medial interaction with the world that occurs beneath the level of conceptual understanding and above the level of of simple sensible perception. His concern with sense and its common features relates to a tradition of inquiry (stemming from Aristotle) that is concerned with dimensions of higher order but pre-conceptual sense. The notion of common sense in this context does not assume any particular sensible content, but rather the relevant universality relates to the common capacity to find things beautiful, the common capacity for a play between levels of experience to occur (and for us to reflectively realise this and take pleasure in it). This sheds a different light on the notions of sense, commonality and universality that undermines our own conventional responses to these terms. This is precisely what good criticism should do – brush away the dust to discover something else.

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Samples

Some sample efforts at ground level studies for upcoming ‘Walking Upstream – Waterways of the Illawarra’ exhibition at Wollongong City Gallery:

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Materiality/Ideality

At the beginning of his second volume of The Philosophy of Nature Hegel writes of the nature of sunlight. Arguing against the view that sunlight is the product of material (chemical) combustion – and thus any sense of an association to terrestrial fire – Hegel suggests that sunlight is aligned more closely with ideality. Sunlight is in his view cold and abstract. His evidence for this is not only logical-philosophical but also empirical – he notes that the air becomes cooler the higher one ascends up a mountain. In this manner Hegel not only unsettles the materiality of sunlight but provides empirical evidence for its ideality.

My interest here is less in any sense of contradiction that this entails than the way in which it projects a rich, complex and ultimately uncertain relationship between materiality and ideality. It would seem to me that this is also what art enables.

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