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.