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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