Permit me to step back for a moment to see where all of this has been leading me. The issue of course is the notion of aesthetics, with trying to make sense of it. In general terms, ‘aesthetics’ has two possible meanings: it can refer to a field of philosophy; or it can refer to a qualitative dimension of objects and experience. In relation to the latter, and drawing on Kant, let’s acknowledge that the aesthetic is less an intrinsic quality of objects than a relational system involving both objects and modes of experience.
In relation to the first meaning, aesthetics can either be restricted to the historically constituted tradition of Western philosophical aesthetics, which begins in the Enlightenment and continues through to the present (via a disparate set of global voices), or it can be regarded more broadly as a form of philosophical reflection that explores aesthetic themes. Adopting the former view, some critics regard it as anachronistic to speak of Ancient Greek aesthetics, or of Chinese Buddhist aesthetics, arguing that it is not as though these discourses are speaking of precisely the same thing. Instead of representing transhistorical cultural constants, the notions of art, beauty, sublimity, etc. are, in their view, better regarded as diverse, varied and highly historically particular phenomena. The ‘artists’, for instance, that Plato banishes from his republic are hardly the ‘artists’ who built European Gothic cathedrals, or who wrote Chinese Chan poems or who, in the last century, as Dadaists or Situationists, devised wayward walks through Paris. And taking one step further, perhaps the notions of ‘art’ and ‘artist’, as terms that have the capacity to link these various activities together, are misguided and inappropriate. Arguably, there never was and never has been anything that consistently identified either the field of ‘art’ or the identity of ‘artist’. In contrast, the other more inclusive and catholic conception of philosophical aesthetics argues that while there may be vital historical differences, there are still aspects of similarity that make the notions of art, artist and aesthetics meaningful categories. While certainly the dimensions of difference between Ancient Greek and contemporary ‘aesthetics’ deserve emphasis, there nonetheless share ’aesthetic philosophical themes’. But how are these to be conceived precisely? At one level philosophical aesthetics can seem to be simply about art, beauty and the sublime, but then it can also be about the senses, truth, freedom and the absolute. The notion of the aesthetic has a chameleon capacity to shift registers – to have variously ontological, epistemological, ethical and ‘aesthetic’ relevance. It makes these shifts not only when regarded in the broadest historical and cultural terms, but also within Western philosophical aesthetics ‘proper’. We can resist this multiplicity of meanings and implications, or we can embrace it, and even regard it as key to what the aesthetic entails. Badiou and Ranciere refer to the ‘aesthetic knot’, which seems apt.
Regarded as a mode of relational experience, similar debates play out. Aesthetic experience can be positioned either in historically specific terms (for instance, as a mode of class differentiation and bourgeois self-understanding) or in more general terms as an identifiable and transhistorical current of experience (involving, for example, aspects of free, sensible apperception). There is of course the problem in relation to the latter that distinguishing the aesthetic from other layers of experience (from work, from scientific knowing, from political interaction, etc.) is itself historically inscribed and legible. Aesthetic experience is often opposed to the rest of life and envisaged as a distinct, separate and embattled space of freedom. Conversely it can be regarded as a utopian index of the world’s radical transformation – of the potential for everything to be perceived and judged differently. The tradition of avant-garde art tends to experience these alternatives in terms of an agonised play of resistance, compromise, withdrawal and lingering hope.
Although I argue that artistic practice forms an aspect of a broader notion of aesthetic experience, the two can also be regarded as differently inclined, with aesthetic experience positioned as receptive and reflective and artistic practice as active and productive. Aesthetic experience is associated with consumption and taste and relates to aspects of felt recognition, appreciation, reconciliation and renewal, whereas artistic practice makes things, intervenes and shapes positive novel visions. While this difference is significant, I would prefer not to insist on it too strongly, and indeed aim to question some of its assumptions and assumed implications. Precisely for this reason, I refer to ‘aesthetic practice’ rather than ‘aesthetic experience’. My aim is to suggest how aesthetics works to unsettle the passive/active dichotomy, to position reception and reflections as forms of engagement. Nonetheless, I also play upon the difference between aesthetic and artistic practice in order in order to critique a naively productive and institutionalised conception of art.
My interest is in conceiving a notion of aesthetic practice that is at once philosophical and experiential – and that is also distinguished, as I say, from art-making, or that is at least broader than ‘art-making’? I stress the combination of philosophy and experience because my sense of the aesthetic is not of some narrowly somatic experiential field, nor is it simply a reflection on sensible experience. It is deeply and from the outset also about thinking, remembering, representing and imagining. It involves at every moment aspects of mediation. It is intrinsically mediatory. But, importantly, it does not necessarily produce anything. It is not fixated on producing things – on fashioning them and making them available. It shapes contexts of intra-reflection, but not necessarily of consumption. It does not require another to make it complete.
In this respect I would also like to link aesthetics to amateurism – and the cultural potential of amateurism. I would also like to link it to recycling and repetition (rather than innovation and novelty). Aesthetic practices are not focused on the new – as object, phenomena or mode of marketable identity. Aesthetic practices follow rather than lead and choose disappearance rather than persistent, unsustainable mark making.
Plainly I am struggling to find links between where I started this post and where I have ended it. In very simple terms, I am trying to find a philosophical and experiential way beyond, or aside from, or in the path of the impasses of art, but also beyond, or aside from, or in the path of an aesthetics that appears simply passive and posterior – its meek and irrelevant gestures of following lacking any sense of direction and purpose. My aim is to discover a sense of possibility in that which refuses, for good reason, to positively set itself forth. Aesthetic practice, plainly an oxymoron, works, and doesn’t work, to recall the world and to enable another mode of social being.
At least here, within the context of my argument, the knotted character of aesthetics – its capacity to unsettle – is what lends the notion strategic value. It’s not as though I expect this specialised and significantly socially divisive term (‘aesthetics’ appearing as something rarefied and separate from ordinary currents of social experience) to suddenly become popular, to suddenly appear as a meaningful alternative to the notion of art. It is not a matter or replacing ‘art’ with ‘aesthetics’, but of using the complex possibility of aesthetics to unsettle both the narrowness of art and more broadly the conventional categories of cultural experience. But this is a tactical manoeuvre, not one that establishes the aesthetic as some entirely philosophically coherent or substantive qualitative field. There is a need to try wherever possible to be clear, but not to the extent of undermining the aesthetic’s status as a question and tangle of suggestive uncertainty.