I would like to hold on to a notion of critical aesthetics. It provides an underlying motivation for this work, which aims to consider alternatives to current material and social relations. This has traditionally involved drawing perverse value from Kant’s social marginalisation of aesthetics – his insistence that it is separate from the conceptual, the ethical and the instrumental, that it occupies its own distinct sphere. The institution of art appears as the embodiment of this separate, marginal identity – at once compromised and yet preserving a vestige of negatively conceived hope. This is a minimal sketch of Adorno’s conception of art and aesthetics, which he employs to clarify and designate values that are not entirely under the thrall of instrumental rationality. The aesthetic, for instance, suggests a relation to thought, experience and material interactions that is not entirely characterised by Hegelian sublation – that imagines and models other less destructive options. Even if art cannot properly realise this more sensitive alternative, even if it is driven to exacerbate the crisis of our everyday being, it nonetheless , in its autonomy, uselessness and partial silence, preserves a vital critical role.
So a great deal of weight is placed on the institution of art – on its capacity to represent and maintain the critical capacity of aesthetics. All other aspects of culture that could potentially be conceived in terms of their aesthetic characteristics appear as components within the overall regime of instrumental rationality, and as literal products of that regime. The issue with this is it places far too much weight on art, while at the same time denying any potential for art to intervene more broadly. Within this schema, the power of art lies in its marginalisation, so that if it ceases to be marginalised it loses its identity and influence. In this manner, art is trapped in double-bind, preserving hope, but only on the condition that it is never realised. The other possibility, which the aesthetic philosophy of Dewey may represent, is to seek out a qualitative, critical aesthetic layer within social practice generally. This is based upon a fundamental critique of the Kantian delineation of separate spheres of rationality, ethics and aesthetics. It is to insist that these spheres are mutually implicated in any given moment of experience. While Dewey may not quite adequately represent this alternative, while he is prone to conceiving an overall harmony between the spheres, there are nonetheless key aspects of his conception of aesthetics that entail a critical dimension – a questioning, for instance, of the nature of labour and of the implications of modern industrialised modes of production. This approach is also in line with key aspects of contemporary artistic practice that work at the limits or beyond the limits of the institution of art in order to forge new opportunities for social engagement, intervention and relevance.
Ranciere regards both of these strategies – either to withdraw into an autonomous and sublime space of critique or to reach outwards and encourage new relations to the social – as characteristic of the modern ‘aesthetic regime’ of art. But in my view, the latter strategy is not simply reducible to the internal machinations of avant-garde art. It entails an engagement with other disciplines, discourses and social spheres that themselves have a positive character and are not reducible to specifically art-based strategies. I would also argue that the notion of the aesthetic is broader than art. Rather than simply extending the influence of art, new forms of socially engaged art practice very often involve the recognition of fields of aesthetic practice that extend beyond art and that are imbricated within strands of activity that may not ordinarily be artistically (or aesthetically) conceived. Just to further clarify my position, Ranciere objects to postmodernism on the basis that efforts to shift beyond art – particularly to open up new relations to forms of popular culture and the like – are nothing new. They are a feature of modern art itself, which regularly resists any sense of hermetic autonomy. Yet in this manner, the field beyond art is devalued. It loses its particular qualities and is represented simply in terms of its relation to the interior contradictions of the institution of autonomous art. Ranciere is correct to object that artistic modernism also revealed a fascination with the popular and the everyday, but only a caricature of postmodernism suggest otherwise. Harvey, for instance, argues that postmodernism simply foregrounds tendencies that were already present within modernism. So he acknowledges the playful relation to the popular within DADA, collage traditions, etc., but also argues that this strand of practice gains increased emphasis within the context of postmodernism. And then it would be a matter of looking closely at the specific relations to the popular that are entailed, rather than assuming that DADA’s relation to the popular is necessarily the primary basis for postmodern and contemporary efforts to engage with popular cultural forms.
But in any case, returning to my main point, I am less convinced that aesthetics is necessarily neatly aligned with a well-meaning critical orientation. Thinking the aesthetic more generally and in less Kantian and more Dewey-ian terms also entails recognising that the aesthetic is more broadly implicated within currents of instrumental and everyday practice that may be in various ways destructive. Take something as simple as hunting (the classical Hegelian model of a material dialectic), this can be conceived not only as a matter of obtaining sustenance, but also of play and erotics. Or torture, which is never simply a means of acquiring information, but also a gruesome, sadistic theatre. Or climate change, with its aesthetic of sublime collapse – of glaciers crashing into the sea and fires burning through forests and suburbs. There is the terrible imaginary of Earth’s collapse, of geological time suddenly becoming humanly perceptible. Aesthetics then does not simply stand back, withdraw, obliquely reflect. It is implicated within everything. This is the problem then with shifting beyond the Kantian conception, of not remaining within the critical moment and impasse that Adorno describes. Once we define a broader aesthetics that is disentangled from the institution of art then we risk losing any critical purchase for aesthetics. The issue then is how we can maintain a critical aesthetics while acknowledging its much wider relevance. And here, I guess it is a matter of not drawing neat lines – of instead recognising areas of qualitative tension, as well as tendencies that could go either way, that are not instantly and simply aligned. In short, there is a need to pass beyond political and ethical naivety, to recognise that there is no pure space of resistance, that the critical is always a complex space of implication and negotiation.