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.